Los Angeles and Tulare counties were sued Wednesday by five voter-rights groups, which accused county officials of purposely disenfranchising minority and low-income voters.
“The opposing supervisors don’t want people voting who don’t know their names and have not already voted for them,” said Mark Rosenbaum, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who filed the petition directly with the state Supreme Court.
The suit was the first in the state to seek a court order implementing two state Election Code sections designed to increase voter registration among citizens least likely to register. The laws encourage registration in all county offices frequented by the poor and minorities or others with low registration records.
Employees in county welfare or assessor offices, for example, would be instructed to ask each client if he were registered to vote and, if not, to hand him a registration card.
Joining the ACLU in the litigation were Common Cause, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Human SERVE and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Spokesmen for the suing organizations charged that most county supervisors have balked at implementing any voter drives for the poor and minorities because they fear it might alter their own electoral base.
“There is a bias on the part of many public officials . . .” said Barbara Facher of Human SERVE, “to exclude people who might not vote for them.”
Rosenbaum said the suit targeted Los Angeles and Tulare because they are among the counties with the lowest voter registration among minorities and low-income residents.
Two other counties, Alameda and Contra Costa, have launched voter outreach programs to implement the Election Code sections, he said.
A ruling by the state Supreme Court would have statewide effect, Rosenbaum said, even though only Los Angeles and Tulare were sued.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last Dec. 28 rejected a resolution encouraging registration by county employees, and the Tulare board turned down a similar one Feb. 17.
A spokesman for Supervisor Peter Schabarum, who led conservative board members in opposing the Los Angeles resolution, said Schabarum was out of town and unaware of the suit but “surely will be distressed by it.”
The spokesman said Schabarum continues to oppose making all county employees deputy registrars, not to protect his own political base but because of potential liability if some employee failed to turn in registration cards and the possibility that employees could become political advocates.
A spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich added that allowing employees to neglect regular duties to register voters would also be too costly.
Rosenbaum said in a press conference that such fears were unfounded and that Alameda and Contra Costa have had no problems implementing the practice.
Supervisor Edmund Edelman, author of the ill-fated resolution, said he will try Tuesday to resurrect his proposal in order to end the lawsuit.
“Once registered, most people vote,” said Facher, explaining the emphasis on registration. “In 1984, 53% of those eligible in the country voted, but 88% of those registered voted.”
Demographic data presented to the high court indicated a direct correlation between both income and ethnicity and registration.
In the Los Angeles area, for example, 1984 census data showed that 83% of white eligible citizens were registered to vote, compared with 63% of Latinos.
The data also showed that registration for citizens with family incomes above $75,000 a year was 19% higher than that for citizens with family incomes under $15,000.
Rosenbaum said he does not realistically expect the Supreme Court to act on the suit in time to increase voter registration before the June 3 primary, but he hopes for a ruling before the Nov. 6 general election. The petition was filed directly with the Supreme Court because of its statewide effect on elections.
Rosenbaum said government officials have the responsibility to make registering to vote as easy as buying a lottery ticket.
PATTERNS IN VOTER REGISTRATION The ACLU is charging that lower income areas and non-whites in California lag in getting help to encourage voter registration.
INCOME AND VOTER REGISTRATION $0-$14,999: 74%
Over $75,000: 93%
RACE AND PERCENTAGE OF VOTER REGISTRATION Areas with high proportion of whites
% Reg. City % Whites Voters Hidden Hills 93% 85% La Canada 94% 92% La Habra 93% 88%
Areas with low proportion of whites
% Reg. City % Whites Voters La Puente 35% 44% Cudahy 32% 27% Maywood 23% 23% Source: 1984 Census, registration figures for Los Angeles-Long Beach area.