Irony in Madera

In the long struggle to ensure voting rights for minority groups, a recurring battle has been the one to replace at-large voting systems with district-based systems. At-large systems -- in which each candidate for, say, city council or the local school board is elected by all the voters, rather than by voters in smaller districts -- have long been known to dilute the votes of minorities.

Voting rights: A Saturday editorial on at-large and district voting systems referred to the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights. It is the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. —

Beginning decades ago in the Deep South and moving on to other communities where voting is racially polarized, the Justice Department and civil rights groups have asked courts to dismantle these systems and to draw smaller districts that allow geographically concentrated ethnic and racial groups a voice in local elections. Lo and behold, African Americans, Latinos, Asians and others have been elected to city councils and school boards and water districts that never had nonwhite representation before.

In California, this is still a significant issue. About 92% of the state’s school boards use at-large voting, as do many city councils and other local boards. The California Voting Rights Act, signed into law just seven years ago, does not allow such systems if there is evidence that they “impair the ability” of a minority group to influence the outcome of an election. We support efforts to ensure a voice for minority groups that traditionally have been underrepresented.

But it is not always so straightforward. Consider the case of the Madera Unified School District. Madera’s student body is more than 80% Latino. Yet there is only one Latino on the school board. Some of this disparity can be explained by the fact that many of the community’s voting-age Latinos are not citizens. But even after subtracting them, there are still an awful lot of eligible Latino voters in Madera.

In August, the San Francisco-based Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights sued the school district on behalf of three students, arguing that its voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act. A judge agreed, nullifying the upcoming election, and the district subsequently promised to dismantle the at-large system.

Here’s the complication: Eligible Latino voters are no longer a minority in Madera. According to documents submitted to the court, they now hold a small majority.

So how can they have been disenfranchised? At-large systems work to the advantage of majorities -- even slim ones. Today, the real reason Latinos cannot successfully elect candidates is that they are not registering and turning out to vote in high enough numbers. That’s unfortunate, but it’s not the fault of the at-large electoral system. Instead of a court stepping in to “protect” them, maybe what theyneed is more community organizers to register voters and to turn them out on election day -- along with more laws aimed at making voter registration quick and easy.

These are tricky issues. We don’t want to see groups disenfranchised, but we don’t want to encourage unnecessary social engineering either. Civil rights lawyers note that as recently as 2000, Latinos constituted just 44% of the total eligible voters in Madera, and argue that the reason they aren’t voting at full strength is because historic patterns of discrimination have convinced them that they can’t achieve much through the electoral system. That may be true, but we remain dubious that once a group is in the majority, it still needs the government’s protection.

There are two ironies here. First, the creation of district systems works to the advantage of Latinos today -- but won’t for long. As they move from 44% of eligible voters to 51% to even larger majorities in Madera and elsewhere, the district system will work to the advantage of other minorities -- including, interestingly, the new white minority, if it continues to vote along racial lines.

Second, although we think the court stepped in for the wrong reasons in Madera, we actually prefer district-based election systems -- because they do protect minorities, and all minorities deserve a voice.