Latino activists push Anaheim council toward district elections

Anaheim voters have a chance this fall to change the system of electing council members at-large.  Activists say that dilutes the voice of Latinos, the city's largest ethnic group but a minority of voters.
Anaheim voters have a chance this fall to change the system of electing council members at-large. Activists say that dilutes the voice of Latinos, the city's largest ethnic group but a minority of voters.
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Anaheim next month could join a growing list of California cities that have been forced to change the way they elect council members in order to give Latinos and other minority groups equal representation in city government.

On November 4th, Anaheim voters will consider Measure L, a ballot proposal that would require future city council candidates to live in districts or neighborhoods they plan to represent and compete for votes in that area only. This is called district-based elections.

Measure L is the product of a lawsuit settlement. Two years ago, three Latino activists, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, sued the city of Anaheim. They argued the city’s at-large election system kept Latinos from being able to elect a candidate of their choice.

Latinos make up more than half of Anaheim’s population but none of the city council members is Latino. Of the city's eligible voters -- citizens who are 18 years or older -- only 34 percent are Latino, according to recent census numbers analyzed by the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College.

Jose F. Moreno, a professor of Chicano and Latino studies at Cal State Long Beach, was one of the activists who sued to force the change to district-based elections. Moreno said it would force council candidates to be responsive to the city’s poorer, predominately Latino, residents who live in the western neighborhoods of Anaheim.

“They’ll have to walk our neighborhoods,” Moreno said. “They’ll have to come meet us.”

Moreno, 45, is doing a lot of that walking these days. He is running for one of the two open seats on Anaheim City Council. Moreno said he decided to run because if Measure L passes, the next step would be to draw council district lines.

“Frankly, I just don’t trust this council to do that,” he said.

Anaheim racked up more than $1.2 million in legal fees before the city council unanimously voted to settle the lawsuit in January. The compromise leaves it up to voters to decide if they want to move to a single member district election system starting in 2016. The activists promised not to sue the city if Measure L doesn’t pass but another set of plaintiffs could take up the case again.

Though the city council eventually agreed to place Measure L on the ballot, some of the councilmembers still oppose it. Mayor Pro Tem Kris Murray said district elections would divide the city even more.

Anaheim is already polarized along class and racial lines.  Some residents accuse city leaders of catering to big businesses, especially Disneyland and the city's professional sports teams. There’s stark disagreement, for example, about how much income the city should concede in order to renew its lease with the Anaheim Angels baseball team. 

But Murray, 46, said district elections would cause contentious budget fights among council members eager to capture as much city funding as they could.

“We stop looking at what’s holistically best for your city, just what’s best for my little piece of the city,” she said.

Murray, who’s also up for re-election, said she’s in favor of tweaking the city’s council to make it a residency-based system, where candidates must live in the district or neighborhood they plan to represent but still would still be elected at-large.

“It’s one area where people have made legitimate concerns on wanting to make sure people are represented from across the city, election cycle to election cycle,” she said.

Anaheim is the largest city in California that still uses an at-large election system. It joins a growing list of California cities that have been sued in the last decade for violations of the California Voting Rights Act.

The 2002 act makes it illegal for municipalities to hold at-large elections if the process dilutes the voting power of minority groups or denies them political representation. It is an expansion of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

The California act says that disenfranchised groups do not have to prove there is a deliberate intent to discriminate against them, only that voting in a municipality is polarized in a way that mutes the voices of a minority.

Private attorneys and civil rights groups like the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, the ACLU and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) have filed these lawsuits.

MALDEF sued the city of Bellflower this year, alleging the city’s at-large elections system diminishes the voting power of African-American and Latino residents.

Justin Levitt, who teaches elections law at Loyola Law School, said attorneys have to demonstrate a consistent pattern in which a minority group fails to elect candidates of their choice over a period of time.

“The cities with the patterns that are clearest are starting to see lawyers knocking on their door sooner,” Levitt said.  “They are also the ones who are moving more quickly toward different systems to make sure that representation is fair across the board.”

While lawyers file lawsuits, political action committees are funding campaigns that seek to switch large cities and school boards to district-based election systems.

In Anaheim, a committee to pass Measure L has raised about $450,000, according to campaign finance documents. Some of that money has come from political action committees such as the Latino Victory Project, based in Washington, D.C., the Orange County Dignity PAC, run by the AFL-CIO, and the San Francisco-based PowerPac.org.

“It’s to empower the community, to give them resources they need to elect candidates of their choice,” said Michael Gomez Daly, an elections campaign organizer for PowerPac.org.

Daly said the PAC has been working on Anaheim election campaigns for five years in an effort to elect Latinos and push the city toward district-based elections.

“We focus on electing candidates of color, particularly candidates in impoverished areas we feel are representatives of the folks in the community,” Daly said.

At a recent campaign event at the home of Anaheim activist Ada Tamayo, she tried to rally neighborhood voters to get out to the polls.

“It’s about our youth. It’s about our people,” she said in Spanish. “The Latino vote has great potential.”

If Measure L does not pass, the council has said it will implement a hybrid model of district elections--the one favored by Murray. Under this model, each council candidate would still be elected by the whole city, but candidates must live in the district they represent.  This model was adopted by the council in July 2013 but suspended after Measure L was placed on the ballot.

Latino activists say such a system is only a halfway measure toward fixing disparities. Experts say such "hybrid" systems, currently at use in cities like Santa Ana and Newport Beach, can still be unfair if they do not give minority groups proportional representation.