by Nandor Kiss, Contributor
In the Northernmost part of Los Angeles County sits the Antelope Valley and the city of Palmdale, California. Incorporated in 1962, the city has had only one non-white member of its city council in the entirety of its history. This is despite the fact that the 2010 census reported the city’s demographic breakdown as 55% Latino, 15% African-American, and only 25% non-Hispanic white.
In July of 2013, Judge Mark V. Mooney of the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled that the at-large elections in the city were a violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). Judge Mooney justified his conclusion by holding that the current voting system violates state law, has “racially polarized voting,” and prevents minority voters from having influence over the outcome of elections. Despite Mooney’s judgment, the November municipal elections were still scheduled to proceed; that is until Monday September 30th, when the Judge granted the plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction, effectively cancelling the elections just weeks before they were arranged to take place.
California Governor Gray Davis signed the CVRA into law in July 2002. It was passed to expand the rights granted under the Federal Voting Rights Act (VRA). One of the main distinctions between the CVRA and the VRA areis the requirements a plaintiff needs to fulfill to bring a vote dilution claim. Under the VRA, a plaintiff needs to first satisfy three “Gingles factors” before a plaintiffhe can could argue a case on the merits. These factors are (1) a minority group must be geographically compact; (2) the minority group must be politically cohesive; and, (3) majority voters vote sufficiently as a bloc usually to defeat the minority group’s preferred candidate. After establishing these “pre-conditions” the plaintiff must prove unconstitutional vote dilution by a “totality of circumstances.”
Unlike its federal counterpart, the CVRA makes it easier to bring a vote dilution claim by eliminating both the compactness requirement of Gingles, and the entire totality of the circumstances test. Rather than having a two-stage analysis like the federal act, the CVRA has simplified the process for plaintiffs. All a plaintiff needs to do to win his case is demonstrate that there is “racially polarized voting.” The CVRA defines this as “voting in which there is a difference…in the choice of candidate…that are preferred by voters in a protected class, and in the choice of candidates…preferred by voters in the rest of the electorate.” The standard is decidedly more plaintiff-friendly. As one article notes, “under a particularly draconian application of the CVRA, plaintiffs could argue that a jurisdiction is subject to liability if 51% of minority voters vote one way, 51% of non-minority voters vote the other way, and the minority-preferred candidate loses.”
It is unknown whether such an extreme case would ever occur; however, at the very least, Judge Mooney is convinced that Palmdale’s elections satisfy the condition for vote dilution. After deciding that an election is racially polarized, the CVRA grants the court authority to implement appropriate remedies, “including the imposition of district-based elections, that are tailored to remedy the violation” This is exactly what Judge Mooney is doing. Until Palmdale has abandoned its at-large municipal elections in favor of voting districts, its 150,000 citizens will have no election.
Predictably, the decision has left many upset. Palmdale city officials are threatening to appeal the decision, calling it a “wildly unprecedented and radical ruling.” To their credit, there has never been a case in which a superior court judge stopped an election just five-weeks before it was scheduled to take place. Also, three of the four candidates running in the November election are minorities. Statistically, this would mean there would have to be at least one minority elected. That being said, the history of Palmdale’s municipal elections does seem to indicate that there are some pervasive problems that need to be addressed. A single minority candidate may not be enough to convince the courts to leave the at-large elections in place.
Update: The California Court of Appeals has since squashed the preliminary injunction allowing the elections to proceed as scheduled. The CVRA issue has still yet to be decided.