Activists target Coachella water district in voting change effort

Opening a new front on efforts to improve minority representation on local elected boards, attorneys representing several Latino citizens have accused the Coachella Valley Water District of violating the California Voting Rights Act.

In a letter delivered Monday to John Powell, the district’s board president, lawyers Robert Rubin and Megan Beaman said the district’s at-large election system “dilutes the ability of Latino constituents to elect candidates of their choice to the board or to influence the outcome of board elections.”

The letter asks the district to switch to a system of electing board members by geographic district or “other lawful system” or be sued.


Though the sprawling district has large numbers of Latino residents, the Coachella Water District’s board members all are white.

Heather Engel, a district spokeswoman, said Monday that officials had not yet had a chance to digest the contents of the letter but that they would “fully and promptly review the request outlined in the letter.”

“It brings up some serious issues, and we’ll take them seriously,” Engel said.

Rubin, who helped write the state’s decade-old voting rights law, and other activists have been pushing for an end to at-large elections in cities and school districts across California. They are targeting jurisdictions with significant minority populations but little or no minority representation and where precinct analysis reveal patterns of racially polarized voting.

Going after the water district signals that activists are ready to expand their efforts to lesser-known governmental bodies.

“We now intend to target special districts, which can be important sources of political power,” Rubin said.

In the past, some community college districts and school boards have switched from at-large to by-district elections to avoid costly lawsuits but others have resisted, particularly cities. Whittier, which has been sued, decided to ask voters whether they want to switch to by-district elections. A judge recently found Palmdale in violation of the state law and agreed to a plaintiff’s request to cancel the Nov. 5 election, but an appeals court allowed the election to proceed.


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Twitter: @jeanmerl