LOS ANGELES – A lawsuit filed by MALDEF alleging that Kern County, California has failed to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act goes to trial in federal court tomorrow.
The lawsuit, filed by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) in April 2016 on behalf of Latino voters, argues that a redistricting plan adopted in 2011 by the Kern County Board of Supervisors unlawfully denies Latinos the right to elect candidates of their choice, in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. While Latinos comprise nearly half of Kern County’s population, the boundaries of the five supervisorial districts include only one Latino-majority district. The boundaries of two other districts split a compact Latino community and dilute voters’ ability to participate effectively in the political process.
“Kern County’s failure to create a second Latino-majority district that would elect a candidate supported by the Latino community violates the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) regardless of whether the supervisors were motivated by discriminatory intent,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “Business as usual may not continue under the VRA in a place where evidence amply demonstrates a history of anti-Latino discrimination with ongoing effects, including in voting, today.”
The landmark lawsuit marks the first challenge to a California jurisdiction for violating the federal Voting Rights Act since 2001. Other jurisdictions have been sued for voting rights violations since then, but those lawsuits were based on the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) of 2001. The CVRA expands on the federal act by allowing challenges to at-large voting systems in favor of district-based systems. While Kern County already elects supervisors by district, MALDEF’s suit charges that the district lines violate federal law.
In the decade prior to the 2011 redistricting plan, Kern County experienced significant population growth, and its Latino population increased from 38 percent of the total population to 49 percent, warranting the drawing of a second Latino majority district. No Latino candidate for supervisor has ever won outside of the current single Latino-majority district, District 5.
The Plaintiffs allege that a second compact, majority-Latino district would provide Latino voters with an equal opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, and that the current map deprives them of that opportunity. A motion by Kern County to dismiss the lawsuit was denied in September 2016 by U.S. District Court Judge Dale A. Drozd.
Judge Drozd will preside over the trial, which opens on Tuesday, Dec. 5, in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California in Fresno.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the redistricting plan is unlawful and to issue an injunction prohibiting Kern County from holding any further elections until a new plan that complies with the Voting Rights Act is approved and adopted.