(Los Angeles, CA) – Civil rights advocates are asking a federal court to allow them to intervene in a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the City of Poway’s election system and challenges the constitutionality of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).
In a motion filed Monday, MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles (Advancing Justice-LA), Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (Advancing Justice-ALC), and the Law Office of Joaquin G. Avila are seeking to intervene on behalf of several residents of Poway who petitioned the court to join the case to defend their access to political representation as required by the CVRA. Additionally, the California League of United Latin American Citizens and residents in the Antelope Valley Community College District also are seeking to intervene in the case to protect the right of California voters to avail themselves of the protections of the California Voting Rights Act.
The CVRA, a 2001 state law that expands on the federal Voting Rights Act with the intention of ensuring minority voters have an opportunity to elect candidates of choice, has been used successfully to address concerns that at-large voting systems too often dilute the voting strength of minority groups. District-based election systems, as an alternative to at-large elections, consistently help underrepresented groups elect representatives of their choice from their own communities.
In October, the City of Poway, located in San Diego County, moved from an at-large election system in which all voters choose all council members, to smaller neighborhood districts in which residents elect their own representative. City officials said they made the change fearing they would be sued for violating the CVRA.
The following day, Don Higginson, a former City of Poway mayor, sued the city and the State of California alleging the move and CRVA are unlawful.
“This contrived lawsuit is the courtroom embodiment of ‘Make America Great Again’ – an attempt to embed white voters’ longstanding privilege,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “However, there is no constitutional right to outvote minority voters in every election, and there is no constitutional right to have an elected body of close neighbors who cozily work together without particular knowledge of unrepresented portions of the local jurisdiction.”
“District elections level the playing field for democracy,” said City of Poway resident Judy Ki. “South Poway has a unique set of problems and needs a City Councilmember to address them.”
The civil rights groups are asking the court to allow them to join the lawsuit, arguing that City of Poway may lack the commitment to defend the CVRA. Lawyers for the residents and LULAC go on to argue that while the California attorney general’s office might defend the state law, it may not have the same interest in protecting the city’s self-imposed changes to its election system.
“Seeking the protections of the federal Voting Rights Act takes significant time and money, so much so that disenfranchised minority communities often find the law out of reach,” said Jonathan Stein, Staff Attorney and Program Manager for Voting Rights at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. “The CVRA is the only state-level alternative to the law in the nation that makes seeking relief easier for disenfranchised minority communities, which is exactly why it’s being targeted by conservative legal activists from the East Coast.”
“Throughout California, the CVRA has been instrumental in jurisdictions converting to district elections,” noted Deanna Kitamura, Voting Rights Project Director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-LA. “We are fighting to uphold the legality of the CVRA to ensure that it continues to be available as a means to change electoral systems that dilute votes.”