L.A. County rejects school districts’ bid to avoid voting rights suits

County workers load ballots into computers at the registrar recorder's office in Norwalk after the November 2012 election. Election officials said that adding school district elections to the already-crowded November ballot would exceed their ability to conduct elections.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County officials rejected a bid Tuesday from several Santa Clarita Valley school districts and a water district hoping to consolidate elections and avoid the kind of voting rights lawsuits that other local governments have been hit with.

The measure failed on a 2-2 vote, with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas abstaining. County election officials opposed the change, arguing that shifting the districts to November even-year elections would exceed their ability to conduct elections.

An increasing number of cities and districts have been sued in recent years over allegations that their election rules violate the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of minority voters.


The cities of Compton and Modesto switched from at-large to district elections after voting rights suits. More recently, the city of Palmdale and the ABC Unified School District in southeastern Los Angeles County have been hit with similar complaints.

Gloria Mercado-Fortine, a board member with the William S. Hart Union High School District, said hers and the other systems that joined in the request -- four feeder elementary school districts and the Santa Clarita Community College District -- have not received a specific threat of litigation.

But she said they had received inquiries about their election system and saw the writing on the wall in the lawsuit against neighboring Palmdale.

“It appears that it’s coming right down the state, from north to south,” she said. “We’re trying to do the right thing here. We truly believe that we want to be very inclusive and increase participation.”

The districts commissioned a joint demographic study that found moving to by-district elections would not necessarily increase minority voting power or protect them against voting rights lawsuits. So instead they requested that the county allow them to consolidate their elections with the statewide general election in a bid to increase voter participation in their elections.

Newhall County Water District joined in the request.

But officials with the county registrar-recorder said allowing the districts to move their elections might overload the county’s voting system, which has limited room on each ballot. According to the office, large portions of the county are already at 75% capacity in even-year November elections.

The office is in the process of modernizing its system, but officials said the new one will not be in place in time for the November 2014 election.

Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes the Santa Clarita Valley, and Don Knabe sided with the school districts.

Rod Pacheco, a former Riverside County district attorney who has made a study of the California Voting Rights Act, said most cities and districts hit with lawsuits under the act have initially fought them vigorously and finally settled.

But, he said, “Government entities are starting to see the light and starting to make changes in their governance structure” to comply with the act before facing litigation.


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