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Whittier changes voting system but legal challenge remains

A Latino citizens group has been petitioning the Whittier City Council to change at-large elections to a district election format.
A Latino citizens group has been petitioning the Whittier City Council to change at-large elections to a district election format.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

Voters in Whittier have approved slicing the city into four city council districts and electing a mayor citywide. However, the group that sued Whittier to get the city to adopt a district system still plans to take the case to trial next year, a spokesman said.

The Whittier City Council proposed the change in the city charter to resolve a lawsuit alleging the city's at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act.  

Three residents backed by the Whittier Latino Coalition complained that the city's at-large elections illegally dilute the voting power of Latinos, preventing them from electing council members of their choice.  In an at-large election, all voters select among candidates who live in any part of the city. Latinos make up 66 percent of the city's residents, but they are less than half of the city's registered voters.

Measure W, the charter amendment, passed 53 to 47 percent in Tuesday's election. It calls for citywide mayoral elections to occur every two years, with the next occurring in April 2016. At the same time, voters in two of the city's four new districts would elect a council member who lives in the district.

The Whittier Latino Coalition took a neutral position on the measure but a spokesman said it did not go far enough.

"We said, 'Let's see what the voters decide,' but either way — win or lose — we're going to go forward with the lawsuit," said Louis Reyes.

The coalition wants five council districts, with one council member serving in the ceremonial post of mayor rotating among the group. It also wants city elections moved to November and for its members to be involved in drawing new district lines.

The Voting Rights Act bars at-large elections in local governments where racially polarized voting patterns can be shown to exist. The 2001 law forces local governments to pay legal costs if they contest Voting Rights Act lawsuits and lose.

The trial in the Whittier Voting Rights Act case is set for March of next year.

In its response to the passage of Measure W, the city issued a statement saying it would seek the dismissal of the case "so that the council and the citizens can focus on moving forward with the new election system. "

Similar lawsuits filed to dump at-large voting systems in other cities have had different outcomes. In Compton, council districts were adopted to resolve lawsuits. In November Anaheim voters will be asked if they want the city to have voting districts.

In Palmdale, a judge ruled after a trial that the city's at-law system was illegal and must switch to a district system. An appeals court recently upheld that ruling.

The city of Santa Clarita settled a Voting Rights Act lawsuit against its at-large elections with a novel plan that does not involve cutting the city into council districts. Instead, the city will use a system called "stacked voting," which works like this: If there are three vacancies on the City Council, each voter get three votes, which they may distribute as they like among candidates. They can cast all three votes for the same candidate or parcel them out.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated the status of Anaheim's Voting Rights Act lawsuit. As part of a settlement, Anaheim voters will decide in November whether to adopt district elections. KPCC regrets the error.