Local school boards have been moving to electing their members by district because of the threat of a lawsuit. The city of Modesto knows all about that because it lost such a lawsuit several years ago. Modesto voters went along and altered the city charter to confirm the change, and were in the second full cycle of electing council members by district.
Lest there be any doubt that the lawsuit threat is real, consider the case of Palmdale, in Southern California. During the summer, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that Palmdale was violating the California Voting Rights Act because it elected its council members at large the same system Modesto used to use. The court found that system put blacks and Latinos at a disadvantage. According to the Los Angeles Times, Palmdale had only had one Latino official in its 51 years as a city.
This past week, the Times reported, the situation took a dramatic turn when a judge canceled Palmdales Nov. 5 elections. As the Times noted in an editorial:
Palmdale city officials are outraged; they say that canceling the elections will leave voters silenced. They intend to ask an appellate court to reject the injunction. But the truth is that the sooner officials begin the process of dividing the city into smaller voting districts, the sooner everyone will have a voice in city elections.
Yes, its inconvenient for Palmdale. Absentee ballots have already gone out. But holding the elections under the old rules is no solution. In fact, if that were to happen, the plaintiffs could make a strong case for decertifying the results.
Dividing a city into districts is a practical if imperfect solution, but one that has enhanced minority voting strength in many communities across the country. Since the California Voting Rights Act was passed in 2002 forbidding the use of at-large elections to dilute the power of minority voters, some 15 to 20 cities, school districts and other government entities have been sued. In most cases, municipalities ended up moving to district voting.