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Saturday, Aug 03 2013 11:01 PM

Time to get rid of municipal at-large elections

By The Bakersfield Californian

We were reminded again last month that, despite what the U.S. Supreme Court might say, or perhaps because of what is says, majority power brokers will continue to try to disenfranchise minority voters. This isn't just happening in Texas, North Carolina and Alabama.

It's happening right here in California. Officials in Palmdale, Anaheim and Santa Clarita have found themselves at odds with voting-rights advocates -- and ultimately, in Palmdale's case, a courtroom decision. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge last month declared that Palmdale had violated state voting laws by preserving an election system that limited the ability of Latinos and blacks to win seats in municipal government. Judge Mark V. Mooney said Palmdale's at-large system violated state law because it encouraged "racially polarized voting," resulting in limited influence for minorities. Anaheim and Santa Clarita, as well as two Santa Clarita school districts, also face lawsuits over their use of at-large elections -- citywide voting systems in which candidates can come from any part of the city and all council members represent the whole, rather than a specific ward or district. The problem is that certain districts, usually minority-dominated, are underrepresented because better-funded candidates from outside their area win virtually every time.

Palmdale is 54 percent Latino and 15 percent black but in its entire municipal history has elected exactly one Latino city council member and zero black council members.

Compare that with Bakersfield, where elections are based on council districts. Minorities haven't been elected in numbers remotely commensurate with their overall share of the population, but at least they have been elected on a regular basis. The city council typically has one minority member -- from heavily Hispanic Ward 1. Until recently, blacks have held that seat and few Hispanics have sought office.

Voting rights advocates are right to challenge cities that, intentionally or not, exclude minorities by way of the at-large voting system, and lower courts are right to side with them. At-large elections, along with partisan-drawn political boundary lines such as what we're seeing in Texas, must not be tolerated.

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