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Voting rights in Compton

There was a time when Compton was overwhelmingly African American. But like much of Southern California, Compton has undergone profound demographic change. Today, nearly two-thirds of its 96,000 residents are Latino. As is 28% of its voting-age population.

With numbers like that, you would think that Latinos would be represented in Compton city government. Yet no Latino has ever held city office there; the mayor and the members of the City Council are all African American.

How has that happened? It is due, at least in part, to Compton’s at-large voting system, under which officials in the city’s government are elected citywide rather than from smaller districts. At-large systems have long been criticized for diluting the votes of minority groups, whose preferred candidates often can’t win the votes of a majority of city residents but could win if they ran in their own neighborhoods.

In 2010, three Latina residents of the city filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn Compton’s at-large system. For a year, the city fought the lawsuit. Finally, last week, officials announced that they had settled the case. Under the agreement, the City Council will vote Tuesday to put a charter amendment on the ballot to replace citywide elections with district elections. That amendment will go before the voters June 5.

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The charter amendment, which we hope will be approved in June, will remove hurdles that have prevented Latinos from taking meaningful part in city politics. The settlement also requires the city to conduct voter education explaining the potential drawbacks of at-large voting systems.

The settlement isn’t perfect. Council members would be barred from opposing the charter amendment until after the June 5 vote. Frankly, we’re not terribly fond of settlements that don’t allow people to speak their minds. Still, the charter amendment is for the best and we hope that city officials will campaign for it. If African Americans and Latinos can get past their disagreements and support the amendment, a costly legal dispute can be avoided and the rights of minority voters can be protected.

No doubt some critics will argue the city should continue to fight. But before doing so, Compton should consider the case of Modesto. That city spent years and a reported $4 million appealing a case against its at-large system -- all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the end, the court refused to intervene and Modesto settled.

Compton officials are showing better judgment. A tool used for so many years to disenfranchise black voters in the South has no place being used against Latinos in Compton.

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