California Voting Rights Act
The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA) was signed into law on 9 July 2002. The act expands on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, making it easier for minority groups in California to prove that their votes are being diluted in "at-large" elections. In 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court established conditions that must be met to prove that minorities are being disenfranchised; the CVRA eliminated one of these requirements. Unlike the Federal Voting Rights Act, the CVRA does not require plaintiffs to demonstrate a specific geographic district where a minority is concentrated enough to establish a majority. This makes it easier for minority voters to sue local governments and eliminate at-large elections.
In 2007, the California State Supreme court ruled the act constitutional in Sanchez v. The City of Modesto. The city claimed that the act was unconstitutional because it inherently favored people of color; the court concluded that the act was not racist in nature and returned the case to the trial court.
Critics of the act argue that it inappropriately makes race a predominant factor in elections and that it does not make sense to eliminate the requirement to establish a geographic district where there is a minority concentration. Advocates argue that at-large elections allow bloc voting that effectively keeps minorities out of office.
Establishment of the Act
The bill was introduced to the California State Senate by Democratic Senator Richard Polanco. The bill was endorsed by both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The bill passed on the Senate floor with a vote of 22 to 13, and passed on the assembly floor with a vote of 47 to 25. The bill was signed into law by Governor Gray Davis on July 9, 2002.
Primarily, the CVRA made it easier for minority groups to sue governments that use at-large elections on the grounds that they dilute the strength of minority votes. The CVRA also required the government to pay all legal and court fees for the plaintiff should the plaintiff win; this includes cases in which the government chooses to settle before a verdict is reached. By 2009 three cases had been successfully brought against local governments; all three resulted in the elimination of at-large elections (and the drawing of district lines). A total of $4.3 million has been paid to compensate lawyer fees.
Supporters of the CVRA championed how much easier it made it for minority groups to dismantle at-large elections; minorities no longer had to prove that a specific minority candidate lost due to racially polarized voting, they only had to prove racially polarized voting existed. Luis Artega, Executive Director of the Latino Issues Forum, supported the bill and claimed, "We have long been aware that at-large elections in a racially polarized electorate effectively work to dilute Latino voice and influence". While the law has in practice served the Latino population, it applies to all ethnic minorities as well as the LGBT community. Regardless of racially polarized voting, some argue that at-large elections allow a majority voice to control the entire populous and therefor prefer elections by district. It is important that when district lines are drawn with purpose using census data to ensure that minority votes are not further fractured and diluted.
Critics of the CVRA argue that the act makes race a predominant factor in elections and that eliminating at-large elections does not make sense if a minority cannot occupy and establish a majority in a specific geographic area. John McDermott, defense attorney for the City of Modesto in their case under the CVRA, claimed that the CVRA is a radical departure from the Federal Voting Rights act; he argued that at-large elections can be threatened under the law even if there is no proof that a minority group either suffered a disadvantage or would benefit from districts. Others say the law is unnecessary, arguing that the number of minorities holding office was on the rise before the act passed and that the law is being used to "shake down" local governments. General supporters of at-large elections say they encourage candidates to encompass many view points and represent diverse groups.
Another criticism arose from the section of the act maintaining that if a government loses or settles they are required to pay the lawyer fees of the plaintiffs. The law was primarily drafted by Seattle law professor Joaquin Avila and the legal counsel for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Robert Rubin. All three cases filed under the CVRA have been filed by one of these men and they (along with lawyers working with them) have received $4.3 million in fees. Avila and Rubin stated they do not feel like their roles in writing the act overshadow its importance and are surprised that more lawyers have not taken on suits due to the financial incentive.
Sanchez v. The City of Modesto
In 2004 the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights filed a suit under the CVRA against the City of Modesto on behalf of three Latino residents. The committee claimed that racially polarized voting was keeping Latinos out of office; the city had had only one Latino council member since 1911 even though the Latino population exceeded 25 percent. The County Superior Court Judge, Roger Beauchesne, sided with the city and declared the law unconstitutional. Beauchesne said the law showed preference to minorities without requiring them to demonstrate need and ruled the requirement for the city to pay the lawyer fees an unconstitutional gift of money. The case was appealed to the 5th District Court of Appeals who struck down the initial ruling, siding with the law. The city appealed the case the to the State Supreme Court claiming that the law allowed reverse racism and constituted unconstitutional affirmative action. The State Supreme court refused to hear the case and sent it case back to trial court.
The case ended in settlement after the city voted on a ballot measure to use district voting by 2009. Although the city settled, they were still responsible for paying $3 million in fees for the defendants lawyers.
Gomez v. Hanford Joint Union School District
In July 2003 the school district of Hanford was sued by Latino voters (backed by civil rights organizations) under the CVRA; the suit claimed that racially polarized voting had negatively affected the ability of Latino's to assume office (there had not been a Latino on the districts board of trustees in 20 years, despite a population that was 38 percent Latino). The city chose to settle and agreed to use by district voting for the board of trustees. It was the first case to be settled under the CVRA. Although the case never went to trail, the district had to pat $110,000 in lawyer fees to the plaintiffs as a part of the settlement.
Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights v. Madera Unified School District
In August 2008 the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights filed suit against the Madera Unified School District on behalf of three Latino residents. The plaintiffs pointed out that while 82 percent of students in Madera were Latino, only one out of seven board members was Latino. The city, instead of going to trial, agreed to draw district lines. The district spokesman, Jake Bragonier, said the decision to avoid trial was a "business decision"(referring to the possibility of having to pay lawyer fees).
But the Committee asked the court to throw out the up-coming November elections; Judge James Oakley ruled against the school board and threw out the November election results. This ruling meant that the school district was officially the losing party and was required to pay the $1.2 million in lawyer fees to the plaintiffs. This was the first case under the CVRA that was decided by a judge, not a settlement.
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