Buena Park considers scrapping at-large voting elections

An early voter marks his ballot at the L.A. County Registrar of Voters last year.
An early voter marks his ballot at the L.A. County Registrar of Voters last year.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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After finding evidence of racially-polarized voting, Buena Park is considering moving to a single-member district election system that would give minority voters representation on the city council.

Since the California Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 2002, several municipalities that elect officials citywide, also known as at-large elections, have been sued for diluting the voting power of minority groups or denying them political representation.

Though Buena Park has not been sued, the city council on Tuesday will consider hiring a demographics expert to identify potential single-member districts with majority Latino and Asian-American residents. 

“A number of Southern California cities have faced significant legal expenses in going through this process,” said Buena Park City Manager James Vanderpool. “I want to make sure that we comply with the law and that we make recommendations to the city council that lessen our exposure.”

Vanderpool sees the writing on the wall. Two elementary school districts in Buena Park, that received legal notices of alleged non-compliance with the state’s voting rights act law, are now moving to single-member district election systems. Even the Buena Park Library District is looking at this issue, he said. 

The city commissioned a report last February to determine whether its at-large election showed racially polarized voting, which means minority voters chose different candidates than non-minority voters. 

“The analysis showed that racially-polarized voting might exist that would trigger a requirement to change to district elections,” according to a city memo.

Latinos make up about 39 percent of the population in Buena Park, according to 2010 Census. About 27 percent are Asian American and that demographic is growing, Vanderpool said.

Minority candidates have run for the Buena Park City Council in three elections since 2002 but only one Asian American was elected in 2010, according to the city clerk.

If the city council approves the contract, the National Demographics Corporation will create at least three district plans for the city council to consider. The contract will cost the city up to $30,000.

“This process will allow us to get the real information, the facts, on what our populations are, where do they reside and if we could draw boundaries that make sense that would allow these possible, underrepresented populations to have better say in our elections,” Vanderpool said.

The threat of costly lawsuits has prompted many municipalities to switch to single-member districts.

The city of Anaheim is in the middle of implementing a new election system after voters in November passed a referendum to create districts.

The plan was placed on the ballot as part of a settlement agreement with a group of Latino activists that sued the city in 2012 under the state’s voting rights act.

The city must appoint three retired Orange County Superior Court judges from Anaheim to an advisory committee that makes recommendations on maps and districts boundary lines.

But there’s a snag. The city has identified only one retired judge that meets those requirements, said Anaheim city attorney Michael Houston.  

Under the settlement agreement, plan B calls for the city appoint up to nine Anaheim residents to the advisory committee but Houston said the city council wants to stick with judges. 

The city is negotiating with the activists who filed the original lawsuit to get permission to appoint judges outside of Anaheim.

“By allowing a broad pool, we would potentially be able to find retired judges who have some experience in election law and voting rights act,” he said.

Houston said judges could provide more impartial recommendations than residents might be able to. The advisory committee, whether made up of judges or residents, should be ready in May, he said.