Valley ground zero in Latino vote war

A legal war is being waged in the valley to give Latino voters more power.

It could transform the way elections are conducted for school boards, city councils, hospital districts and other public agencies, races that traditionally have been decided by white voters.

To achieve their goal, activists are suing under a little-used law, the California Voting Rights Act, in Madera, Kings and Tulare counties. They already have sued Modesto and are threatening to sue the Ceres Unified School District.

The act requires public agencies to allow elections by districts if it's proven that at-large elections, as opposed to voting district by district, lessen the chances for a minority candidate to win.

Already, the activists have won in the Madera Unified School District, where trustees decided last month to halt the upcoming November election until voting by district can be established.

For decades, Latino activists wanted to change the voting system. They contend candidates favored by minorities lose elections to white candidates who have the money to finance citywide campaigns.

The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights is leading the charge. The San Francisco-based advocacy group is focused on the valley because Latinos are a majority in the area but have low representation on public boards, said legal director Robert Rubin.

On the other side of the fight are lawyers for the public agencies and some elected officials. They say public boards throughout the valley already have nonwhite members. They also contend the movement is a get-rich scheme by out-of-town lawyers.

The Modesto City Council had to pay $3 million to the plaintiffs' lawyers to settle its lawsuit. The council adopted district elections after voters passed a ballot measure in February.

"Do you want to be a millionaire overnight?" said Visalia lawyer Leonard Herr Jr., who represents the Tulare District Hospital against a lawsuit that alleges violation of the state voting act.

Rosalinda Avitia, one of seven plaintiffs who sued the hospital, said Herr's argument doesn't wash.

"We want people who know our neighborhoods, our streets and our concerns to represent us," said Avitia, 58, of Tulare.

Federal cases hard to win

The voting act was enacted in 2002 to give minorities the right to choose their own candidates and make it less expensive for poor candidates to run for office, said Joaquin Avila, a law professor at Seattle University. Avila played a key role in writing the law.

To prevail in court, though, plaintiffs must prove that at-large elections result in "racially polarized voting," a legal term that requires a complex statistical analysis of voting patterns.

In simple terms, if Latinos vote differently from the white majority, then it's racially polarized voting, Avila said.

The federal act made it difficult for plaintiffs to win because they had to prove that a public agency intentionally discriminated against minorities, or that its at-large elections had a discriminatory effect on minorities casting votes, Avila said.

And if the plaintiffs lost in federal court, they would have to pay court costs, he said.

Under the California Voting Rights Act, plaintiffs only have to prove that racially polarized voting occurred in an election. And if plaintiffs lose, they aren't on the hook to pay expensive court cost or attorney fees, Avila said. But if a public agency loses, it has to pay those fees, as well as implement voting by district, he said.