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Madera Unified case is changing elections throughout California

The heavily Latino district's voting system made it hard for Latinos to win school board seats. A judge ruled it violated the state Voting Rights Act. Other cities are taking note.

January 04, 2009|Mitchell Landsberg

MADERA, CALIF. — You would never mistake Jesse Lopez Jr. for a revolutionary. Soft-spoken, with a shy smile beneath his gray mustache, the retired school custodian and amateur mariachi singer hardly seems like an instigator.

Yet if Latinos come to dominate California politics someday, Lopez will have helped make it happen.

Lopez was one of three plaintiffs in a lawsuit earlier this year against the Madera Unified School District aimed at greater Latino participation on the school board in the San Joaquin Valley town.

An injunction in the case is forcing Madera Unified, which is 82% Latino, to change the way it elects its board.

The decision has already begun to reshape school boards, city councils and special districts throughout California. Dozens of jurisdictions have Latino majorities with few, if any, Latino elected officials -- the very conditions that led to the ruling that the Madera district's electoral system had fostered "racially polarized voting" in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

"I think what we're looking at is a quiet revolution," said Robert Rubin, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which brought the Madera case. "I think this will sort of usher in the transfer of power from the Anglo community to the Latino community . . . with fair and equitable voting procedures."

The latest step along that road was a ruling in September by Madera County Superior Court Judge James E. Oakley, who invalidated, in advance, the results of the November school board election. Oakley said Madera's at-large voting system, in which all voters in the district cast ballots for all board members rather than for a candidate representing their section of town, violated the Voting Rights Act.

Relying on the remedy suggested by the law, he called for the district to be divided into seven trustee areas, with candidates to run in each.

Roughly 90% of California school boards use at-large voting, as do many city councils and other local boards. The state's Voting Rights Act, enacted in 2002, bans at-large voting if there is evidence that it "impairs the ability" of a minority group "to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election."

Other jurisdictions are paying heed. In the wake of Oakley's order, the Madera City Council decided to switch to district elections, City Councilman Robert Poythress said. And in neighboring Fresno County, where 28 of 32 school boards use at-large elections, all 28 decided to follow Madera's lead and switch to district elections, county schools Supt. Larry Powell said.

"I've had no chafing on the part of anybody," he said. "They said, 'It's the right thing to do. Let's do it.' "

Similar discussions are taking place in other counties. Ultimately, Rubin said, the electoral change will transform "the literal face of California politics."

That is a lot to lay at the feet of Lopez, who was surprised to hear that his case had implications outside Madera. The son of a former county supervisor, Lopez said he volunteered to join the case out of concern that at-large voting made it too difficult for Latinos to win.

Madera, about 20 miles northwest of Fresno, has had Latino residents as long as anyone can remember -- probably since it was founded in the 19th century. Today's Latino population is a mix of long-established families, many of them securely middle class, and a large influx of newcomers, many of them poor, Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico.

The city of 55,000 is more than two-thirds Latino. Yet just one Latino sits on its seven-member school board. Why can't a Latino majority elect more Latinos?

The easy answer is that many of the newly arrived immigrants are not U.S. citizens and can't vote. But Latinos hold a slight majority even among U.S. citizens of voting age.

In interviews, several incumbent board members and a member of Madera's City Council argued that Latinos had effectively marginalized themselves, with too few involved in civic affairs.

"To be honest with you, over the 17 years that I have been on the board . . . there haven't been that many Hispanics or Latinos who have taken out papers to run," said Robert Garibay, the lone Latino trustee. It frustrates him, especially when he hears people in the Latino community complain about a lack of representation.

"Where were they?" he asked.

Garibay argued that Latinos were, perhaps, discouraged from running because "they don't feel that they have a chance." As a result, he said, "they don't get involved, for the most part, in community events." That is the argument made in interviews by the three plaintiffs.

"What are the chances of one of us being able to run citywide?" asked Carlos Uranga, who ran twice unsuccessfully for school board. "And what are the chances of us motivating our voters to vote when they don't think we stand a chance?"

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