Yakima, WA is one-third Latino, but a Latino candidate has not been elected to the city council for almost 40 years. Santa Barbara, CA is 38 percent Latino, but only one Latino has been elected to its council in the last 10 years. And Pasadena, TX is 43 percent Hispanic, but the ethnic group is not even close to being proportionately represented in the city government.
All three cities have been or are currently being sued for allegedly using discriminatory at-large voting systems, a voter dilution tactic that has been recently and frequently employed against Hispanic voters. In an at-large system, every city resident votes for each member of the governing body and the city does not divide voters into districts.
As the Latino population grows across the country, cities have employed at-large voting to dilute the Latino vote and maintain white control of local governing bodies. Instead of allowing each district to elect its own representative, an at-large system means that unless Hispanic populations reach a majority in the entire city, they will have no influence in electing their local members of government. According to Fair Vote, at-large systems allow 50 percent of voters to control 100 percent of seats, typically resulting in racially homogeneous elected bodies. The tactic used to be popular in the South to discriminate against neighborhoods with large African American communities but is now targeting a new threat: Latinos.
Recently, a court in Washington struck down the city of Yakima’s at-large voting system — whose representation is elected by the city as a whole rather than by specific districts — ruling that it was discriminatory and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Lawsuits against cities attempting to dilute the Hispanic vote are gaining traction as more and more end with court orders and settlements that favor the plaintiffs, said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.
“A lawsuit like [Yakima] will clearly have a very important impact,” McDonald told ThinkProgress. “This was the first Section 2 challenge to an at-large system that was brought in Washington state and already the Hispanic population in Pasco, Washington has approached the city council there and asked them to adopt a single member district plan to replace the at-large system.”
Kathleen Taylor, the executive director of Washington’s ACLU branch, said the city of Pasco is likely to change its system before it is sued and ends up in a similar position to Yakima.
After ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in the suit against Yakima, the judge adopted the ACLU’s voting plan, which called for an elimination of the at-large system. The ACLU is also asking Yakima for more than $2.8 million in legal fees and expenses. “If you bring a lawsuit now, these jurisdictions understand that if they lose, they will be liable for a substantial amount of costs and fees,” McDonald said. “That will have an important impact on their decision to settle these cases.”
Last month, the city of Santa Barbara, CA partially settled a similar suit, alleging its voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act. The city is currently drawing six new districts with citizen input to ensure that the Hispanic population, which makes up nearly 40 percent of the city, is not discriminated against. The lead plaintiff told the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Daily Nexus that the city is saving more than $2 million by settling the litigation for around $600,000 and not allowing it to go to trial, where the plaintiffs would likely prevail.
Because California has a state voting rights law, it “facilitates this type of challenge,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As a result, he said we will see a lot of settlements and moves away from at-large systems in California.
Across the rest of the country, where voting rights laws may not be as strong, the only way to challenge at-large systems is by using Section 2 of the VRA, a process that is “extremely time-consuming and expensive,” Saenz told ThinkProgress. As a result, a number of jurisdictions will attempt to get away with at-large systems without being challenged.
Cities have historically used at-large districts to dilute the African American vote, McDonald said, and many still do. In December, the ACLU sued the Ferguson-Florissant School District, the district that includes Ferguson, MO, where the police shooting of African American teenager Michael Brown triggered widespread protests. The suit claimed that although African-American students accounted for 77 percent of the total enrollment in the school district, only one of the district’s seven school board members is black.
Hispanics have been explicitly covered by the provisions of the VRA since 1975. And in 1982, Congress extended the Voting Rights Act, amending Section 2 to say you could establish a violation if a voting plan has a discriminatory purpose or effect. One of the first lawsuits filed after the amendment alleged that Big Horn County, MT discriminated against Native Americans by using at-large districts to elect the board of commissioners and school board, said McDonald, who represented the Native American plaintiffs. After the county implemented single-member districts, a Native American was elected to the county commission for the first time.
“That lawsuit had a ripple effect and there were lawsuits brought challenging at-large systems in other states in the west — South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and so on,” McDonald said.
Beginning in 1986, a number of cases challenged at-large voting systems in Alabama over the course of a decade. A district court ultimately ruled that 200 jurisdictions were using the discriminatory voting system and required them to adopt new districting.
The problem seemed to have been solved in the South until the Supreme Court gutted the VRA in 2013, opening the door for Southern states to move forward with at-large voting districts. With growing immigrant and Hispanic populations, cities in Texas and other Southern states reverted to using discriminatory systems. In Pasadena, Texas, a pending lawsuit alleges the city council does not provide equal representation for the town’s 43 percent Hispanic voters.
Cities that have gotten away with using at-large systems in the past may also be forced to change their systems as the Hispanic population grows and reaches a critical mass, Saenz said. According to a recent report, whites will make up 46 percent of eligible voters by 2060 — down 24 points from today. Meanwhile, Latinos will make huge gains of 15 points. And states where more minorities turn out to vote are more likely to pass vote-suppressing laws, a study found.