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California Voting Rights Act: Attacking 19th Century Progressive Reform as 21

In the face of a threatened California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit, Santa Clara has established a charter review committee to evaluate the fairness of the city’s at-large City Council elections and to recommend alternatives.

Historically in California, municipal at-large elections were considered the progressive alternative to the Northeast’s pervasively corrupt ward systems. Until 1955, at-large elections were mandatory for California’s general law cities and few charter cities had district elections.

But that changed in 2001, when State Senator Richard Polanco introduced the CVRA to the California’s legislature; where it passed and was signed into law by Governor Gray Davis in 2002. The law took direct aim at the potential for at-large elections to dilute the influence of minority voters, regardless of intention. The law made it easier to bring voting rights lawsuits, and shields attorneys from liability even if cases are dismissed.

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In 1986 the U.S. Supreme Court established requirements that must be met to prove an election system dilutes minority voters’ strength, including: whether the minority group usually votes in a bloc, whether it is big enough and geographically compact enough to constitute an election district majority, and whether the larger majority votes as a bloc consistently enough to defeat minority-preferred candidates.

California’s law eliminated the geographic concentration requirement. An at-large election system – such as Santa Clara’s – is prohibited if it “impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters who are members of a protected class.”

The CVRA was the brainchild of two activist lawyers, Seattle law professor Joaquin Avila and Robert Rubin, legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area, which has threatened Santa Clara with a voting rights lawsuit.

Joaquin Avila describes the CVRA as his “most significant accomplishment.” In addition to his extensive legal practice and teaching, Avila also directs “student research to document discrimination against Latinas/os in the State of Washington.” Unsurprisingly, Avila aims to change federal law “to prevent the award of costs to prevailing party defendants in civil rights suits that are meritorious yet unsuccessful.”

Since the CVRA was passed, Rubin’s LCCR and attorneys working with him have collected over $4 million in fees from three cases that were settled, and have warned dozens of cities and school boards they could be sued – including Santa Clara.

Next week: The CVRA’s Trail of Lawsuits.

Want to know more about the California Voting Rights Act? The California League of Cities (www.cacities.org) has published analysis of the CVRA. James Rowen has helpfully posted the text of the California Elections Code Section 14025-14032 at his Mission City Lantern blog (missioncitylantern.blogspot.com).

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