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Election nullified before the vote

Judge says it violates the Voting Rights Act and harms Latinos.

September 25, 2008|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

A judge in Central California has taken the unusual step of tossing out, in advance, the results of an upcoming school board election after finding that it violated the terms of the California Voting Rights Act.

Madera County Superior Court Judge James E. Oakley concluded Tuesday that at-large elections for three school board seats put Latino candidates at a disadvantage and should be replaced by elections in which the board is divided into districts, according to spokesmen for the Madera Unified School District and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, which demanded the change.

Because ballots have already been printed, the school board race will still be included on the Nov. 4 ballot in Madera but will not be certified by the county clerk. A special election will be scheduled, probably to coincide with the general election next June.

"This is a historic decision," Robert Rubin, legal director of the San Francisco-based lawyers group, said Wednesday. "This is the first time that a court has enjoined an election, at least under this law. And it hopefully will send a signal to other jurisdictions around the state that discriminatory election systems will not be tolerated."

The Lawyers Committee sued the school district in August, complaining that although 82% of its 18,500 students are Latino, only one Latino sits on the seven-member school board, and only one other Latino has served on the board in the last 25 years. Since 1996, Rubin said, Latinos have run for school board eight times, but in all but one case have been defeated by what he called "Anglo bloc voting."

Because many Latinos are not citizens or are too young to vote, only 44% of Madera's eligible voting population is Latino, giving whites a majority. Rubin said his group favors a system of voting districts that would include at least three with Latino majorities.

A spokesman for the district, Jake Bragonier, said the board did not oppose the judge's injunction but did not acknowledge wrongdoing. "It was essentially a business decision," he said. "If we want to fight this, we're going to be paying a lot of money one way or the other -- even if we win."

Earlier this year, the city of Modesto settled a voting rights case with the Lawyers Committee over at-large elections for City Council, agreeing to pay $3 million in legal fees. Since March, Rubin said, the committee has threatened to sue 20 to 25 jurisdictions throughout the state that hold at-large elections in which Latinos appear to be at a disadvantage.

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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