A voting rights expert who is been involved as an expert witness in dozens of lawsuits of the California Voting Rights Act said such cases usually come down to two things and there are few remedies outside of districting.
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“If you can prove that the elections are racially polarized, that’s the first factor,” said Caltech professor J. Morgan Kousser. “And if you can prove that a racially polarized group usually loses, then you have to change.”
Kousser, a professor of history and social sciences, has testified for plaintiffs in several notable cases, including Garza vs. Los Angeles County and the Justice Department in its recent suit against Texas, regarding its voter identification laws.
Three local agencies, the city of Santa Clarita, the Sulphur Springs School District and Santa Clarita Community College School District, were hit with lawsuits filed in June, which alleged violations of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
The lawsuit accused the governing bodies of having at-large elections that foster racially polarized voting and denied Latinos, as a protected minority class, their say in local elections.
School and city officials have filed attorneys to fight the lawsuits, which were filed by Jim Soliz and Rosemarie Sanchez-Fraser. Kousser is an expert solicited by attorney Kevin Shenkman, who is representing the plaintiffs.
School officials commissioned a report that looked at the demographics of the Santa Clarita Valley, including possible districts, more than a year before the lawsuits.
The report suggests it’s “incredibly easy” for a governing body to get sued under the current verbiage of CVRA.
Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, called the law “poorly written” on Wednesday, and said legislators could have a remedy for it as early as January.
Kousser disagreed with both assessments, arguing the law was written in broader terms than the Federal Voting Rights to make it less expensive to either bring forth or defend a claim against a violation.
“It’s in order to cut costs more than anything else — in order to bring suits and reduce the bureaucracy,” Kousser said.
In California, a plaintiff doesn’t have to prove an intent to discriminate on the basis of race or religion, or that a district could be comprised of a majority of the protected class bringing suit, Kousser said.
A history of discrimination is also not something that has to be proven in order to win a CVRA claim, which is a component of the Federal Voting Rights Act.
However, Hart district board President Joe Messina, who oversees the governing board for the valleywide William S. Hart Union High School district, said the law goes against the very nature of laws.
“The spirit of any law written is to right a wrong or it’s to protect somebody who can’t protect themselves,” Messina said. “So in the SCV, who was wronged, and did they try a remedy?
Messina said his district, which oversees junior high and high schools for nearly 23,000 Santa Clarita Valley students, hasn’t been sued, but he anticipates a lawsuit because the law is “asinine.”
“Did a group of people get together? Was there a meeting about this that I missed? Was there an outcry?” Messina asked rhetorically.
“No. We went right to letter and lawsuit,” Messina said. “That’s not somebody who wants to work something out.”
Kousser, who testified in the Garza case that resulted in the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors drawing up five districts in the early 1990s, said he found proof of 56 California elections, most of them educational boards, where the law made an impact in terms of increasing the presence of a protected class on the board.
For the county, the redistricting preceded the election of Gloria Molina, who was the first Latina representative on the county’s board of supervisors in 115 years, Kousser said.
Whether the city wins or loses the lawsuit, Kousser said, doesn’t necessarily mean that it couldn’t get sued by another minority group of voters claiming racially polarized voting is denying them a voice in local elections.
“If a judge ordered a nondistrict remedy, it would be unlikely for another judge to then rule that wasn’t enough,” Shenkman said. “If a governing board attempts to remedy a CVRA violation but ultimately does nothing to change its electoral structure, that is plainly insufficient.”
Earlier this year, the various Santa Clarita Valley school districts, including the Hart district, all tried to move their elections to match up with the even-year elections held by Los Angeles County.
School officials cited the report, which stated such a move would cut election costs and increase turnout.
However, county supervisors, including Molina, didn’t acquiesce, and school districts were denied an opportunity to move their elections with by a 2-2-1 vote in April.
County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, who voted in favor, said the move was a “common sense” request.
“You need to integrate people into the political system so that everybody feels represented and the schools are not ruled by a small elite group that are representing an increasingly diverse population,” Kousser said.
“So schools have been the major ones that have changed,” he said, noting the state’s public school population is more than 50 percent Hispanic.
“And I think that’s a good thing — I think that’s the most important place for the jurisdiction to change,” Kousser said. “But you also want the members of the city council (to be representative), and you want to plan ahead if possible.”
Representatives with Sulphur Springs School District and the Santa Clarita Community College School District declined to comment because they are in the middle of litigation.
An attorney for the city of Santa Clarita also declined to comment on the nature of the city’s defense of the lawsuit, citing the same grounds.
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Source: Santa Clarita News