Decision Follows MALDEF Letter Challenging At-Large Election System

MERCED, CA - Late last night, the City of Merced voted to place on the November ballot an ordinance that would change the at-large election system to a by-district system for each of the six seats on the Merced City Council. The council supports the measure as the most appropriate course of action to ensure optimal geographic representation on the council, and to ensure that all city residents are able to elect candidates of their choice.

Earlier this year, MALDEF conducted an investigation of demographic and electoral information in Merced and confirmed that none of the six current members of the City Council is Latino, and that there has been no Latino City Council Member elected for nearly a decade. The investigation also confirmed that the non-Latino majority of the electorate consistently vetoes the electoral choices of the Latino electorate in Merced, putting the city at serious risk of violating the California Voting Rights Act. Over 49 percent of Merced's population is Latino, including 37 percent of its citizen voting-age population, and 33 percent of its registered voters.

"The City's agreement to place on the ballot and support the measure to implement by-district elections ensures that voters will have the opportunity to implement a better, more representative system for city governance," stated Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF President and General Counsel. "Merced's future is brighter based on last night's historic council decision."

If Merced voters adopt the measure, the city will establish six single-member districts. City Council candidates will be elected by residents of the district in which the candidate resides, and the winner will represent the interests of their district residents. The City of Merced will establish a process for the drawing of the six districts, to be reviewed by an independent advisory committee of at least seven members, which will also assist in the development of district maps. Members of the committee will be nominated by the Merced County Chapter of the League of Women Voters based on specific criteria. The new district maps will ensure that there are three districts that are entirely encompassed in the area south of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Rail Line and three districts that are entirely encompassed in the area north of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Rail Line.

Joanna Cuevas Ingram, attorney for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which joined MALDEF in providing notice of the potential CVRA violation, stated, "Today, The City of Merced has taken a major step forward to comply with our state and federal voting rights laws, joining over 140 jurisdictions in California that have sought to change from at-large to district-based electoral systems over the last decade. If the Ballot Measure establishing district elections passes in November, the City has made a commitment to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest and that it conducts sufficient outreach in English, Spanish and Hmong to begin a participatory, transparent and public community-based districting process in 2015. Today, the City of Merced has taken one step closer to becoming more accountable to the growing diversity of the people of Merced in the process."

The Merced City Council has agreed to conduct necessary advertising and outreach to inform and educate city residents about the districting process, and to encourage participation in the Committee's public meetings. All outreach materials will be provided in English, Spanish and Hmong languages.

"If the ballot measure passes, Merced will join the growing ranks of local entities recognizing that by-district elections reflect good governmental policy and lead to increased political participation by its residents," said Denise Hulett, National Senior Counsel for MALDEF.

The California Voting Rights Act states "[A]n at-large method of election may not be imposed or applied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election." MALDEF encourages Merced voters to protect the ability of all city residents to elect candidates of their choice in the spirit of the equality the CVRA is intended to secure.

Founded in 1968, MALDEF is the nation's leading Latino legal civil rights organization. Often described as the "Latino Legal Voice for Civil Rights in America" MALDEF promotes social change through advocacy, communications, community education and litigation in the areas of education, employment, immigrant rights and political access. For more information on MALDEF, please visit:

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Copyright 2009 MALDEF — Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund