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Santa Clara’s Real Challenge Isn’t Drawing Districts — It’s Discrimination

Since Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle found Santa Clara had violated the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), the public conversation has been dominated by alternative districting maps, election sequencing, the extent of judicial power over charter cities and a fast track schedule for implementing a new by-district representation system in time for November’s election.

But the central issue isn’t districts or election systems. It’s long-standing discrimination.

“Based on the evidence presented at trial the Court finds that Plaintiffs have proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the at-large method of election used by the City impairs the ability of Asians to elect candidates as a result of the dilution and abridgment of their rights as voters,” Kuhnle wrote in his June 6 ruling in the Ladonna Yamuri Kaku v. The City of Santa Clara voting rights lawsuit.


In his decision, Kuhnle laid out the evidence proving voter suppression under both federal and California voting rights laws.


Santa Clara’s History of Inaction

Santa Clara failed for years to respond to questions about its election system, and the Judge referred to this several times in his decision.

“The failure to address the source of voting dilution, such as numbered posts, is a factor that should be considered,” Kuhnle wrote. At-large, at-large by-seat and at-large from-district systems are all “disfavored” under voting rights laws because of their established potential for diluting minority votes.

“The City was put on notice in 2011 that its at-large, numbered posts were diluting Asian voting rights,” Kuhnle noted. “Instead of candidly addressing the issue, the City’s interim general counsel [Elizabeth Silver] asked that a demographer’s report be ‘stripped’ of ‘the information about the council election history and the charts . . . showing racial polarization’ before it was distributed to members of the City Council and the Charter Review Committee.

“The City did not make any changes to its electoral devices or other voting practices or procedures,” continued the Judge, “despite having two Charter Review Committees examine the issue, first in 2011 and then in 2015. It was not until 2017 that it again appointed a Charter Review Committee to examine its voting procedures.”

And Santa Clara did that only “after the City received newly-drafted demand letters from Plaintiffs alleging CVRA Violations,” he wrote.


Numbers Tell a Story:  No Minority Council Members, Ever

Kuhnle then turned to statistical evidence of polarized voting, finding that plaintiff’s expert Morgan Kousser’s, “analysis of election results support a finding that racially polarized voting occurred in City Council elections from 2002 to 2016.”

Kousser examined 10 elections where there was at least one minority candidate. “The Court finds that the results of five of the ten City Council elections he analyzed show racially polarized voting and six show cohesive Asian voting,” Kuhnle wrote.

Further, he continued, “The CVRA requires the Court to consider the extent to which candidates who are members of a protected class and who are preferred by voters of the protected class…have been elected to the governing body…Here, the answer is none.”


Numbered At-Large Seats Are Discriminatory “Device” 

Third, the Judge found clear evidence that the numbered seat system was an “electoral device” or “voting practice or procedure” that enhanced the diluting effects of at-large elections. “It is widely recognized that numbered posts or seats increase the difficulty that minority groups face in winning at-large elections by preventing them from concentrating their votes,” he wrote.

It wasn’t as if the City Council had never heard this. “In 2011 an overwhelming majority of the City Charter Committee voted in favor of abandoning numbered seats.” Despite that information, “The City Council has never adopted that recommendation.”

Demographic analysis presented in the remedy phase of the trial also indicated that in 2016 two Asian-American candidates were clear preferences in Asian-majority and -plurality voting precincts, and in by-district elections those candidates would have been likely to win election.


Korea Town Dispute Surfaced Anti-Asian Prejudice 

Finally, the Judge considered California’s past history of discrimination as well more contemporary anti-Asian sentiment expressed, for example, in emails sent to City Hall about the Korea Town proposal several years ago.

“The Court has considered other factors the CVRA considers probative,” Kuhnle wrote, “including the history of discrimination and the extent to which members of a protected class bear the effects of past discrimination in areas such as education, employment, and health, which hinder their ability to participate effectively in the political process.

“While the extent to which historical discrimination affected City elections is hard to measure, the Court concludes it supports finding a CVRA violation,” he concluded.


City Hall and Its Allies Remain In Denial

 Mayor Lisa Gillmor continues to imply in her public communications that the Judge’s orders are unfair and influenced by outsiders, and that the City hasn’t had enough time or “robust input” to consider change.

Online critics of the Judge’s decision have been freely expressing contempt for the plaintiffs in the case, their attorneys and Kuhnle and his orders, sneering at his refusal to recognize that Santa Clara is “unique.”

These critics also dismiss the discrimination question, instead posting comments to the effect that their Asian-American neighbors are demanding special privileges, don’t bother to vote, have unintelligible accents and are outsiders.

One critic on a local social media site called the decision “a lot of manipulation just for fairness.” Another said, “We’ve had Asian candidates. Now we just need to get the Asians out to vote for them.” And another, “This is not just about getting a seat on the council. It is about knowing our city and being able to speak so that we can understand them.”

A native of Chicago, Illinois, Wesley Mukoyama, a victorious plaintiff in the recent voting right lawsuit, has lived and voted in Santa Clara for more than 40 years and is a retired Palo Alto Veterans Administration supervising social worker.

Mukoyama served in the Peace Corps and is the former executive director of Yu-Ai Kai Japanese American Community Senior Services. He has an MS in Social Services Administration from the University of Chicago.


Correction: Wesley Mukoyama is a native of Chicago, Illinois, not Austin, Texas as we incorrectly wrote. Additionally, he served in the Peace Corps, not the Navy. We apologize for the errors.


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