The city of Anaheim isn’t affected by a recent court ruling that the city of Palmdale’s at-large voting system violates the California Voting Rights Act, at least not directly. But it’s a clear warning signal to the Anaheim City Council that it’s heading for trouble.
Fast-growing Palmdale in the Antelope Valley is home to more than 150,000 people, more than half of them Latino. About a quarter of the residents are non-Latino whites and nearly one-sixth are black, according to census data. They are represented by a five-person City Council, one of whose members is longtime Mayor James C. Ledford Jr.
Five local residents alleged in the lawsuit that the city’s at-large elections diluted the voting strength of blacks and Latinos in violation of California law. One of their attorneys, Mayor R. Rex Parris of neighboring Lancaster, pointed out that no blacks and only one Latino have ever won a seat on the Palmdale council, despite their growing numbers.
(Parris’ presence in the case is more than a little ironic, considering that the Justice Department has accused his city, Palmdale, and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department of racial discrimination in housing and law enforcement. And Lancaster has at-large voting too. On the other hand, Parris is publicly supporting a shift to district voting in his city.)
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mark V. Mooney’s tentative statement of decision notes that the key question for the courts in these cases is whether there is “racially polarized voting.” That’s defined as a difference between candidates supported by members of a protected class (e.g., blacks and Latinos) and those supported by everyone else in the city.
In other words, at-large voting is fine in cities where candidates draw roughly similar levels of support from voters regardless of their race or ethnicity, and it’s not where they don’t. There’s no need to prove an intent to discriminate, Mooney wrote, just a discriminatory result. And the research done by expert witnesses for both the plaintiffs and the city showed that the (unsuccessful) candidates favored by blacks and Latinos were different from the ones favored by whites, the judge found.
Representing a population twice the size of Palmdale’s, members of the Anaheim council have turned back repeated efforts to switch to district voting. Most recently, a blue-ribbon panel created by the council recommended a ballot initiative to decide whether to end at-large voting, but the council rejected that idea. Instead, it decided to ask voters in 2014 to decide whether to divide the city into districts and require council representatives from each district to reside there. But each race would still be decided by all the voters in the city, meaning that it wouldn’t have any effect on racially polarized voting.
The city is now waiting for an Orange County Superior Court judge to rule on a voting-rights lawsuit brought against it by the ACLU. If the plaintiffs can show that voters in Anaheim are racially polarized, Mooney’s ruling suggests that the half-measure the council proposed in lieu of district voting isn’t likely to be much of a defense.
The solution to racially polarized voting isn’t to change where the candidates live; as voters in Los Angeles’s 9th Council District know, anybody can parachute into a district and run (and win!). It’s to change who gets to vote on them.
Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey