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School district sued over voting rights issues

April 11, 2013|By Teresa Watanabe

A school district in southeastern Los Angeles County is illegally diluting the voting clout of Latinos and barring them from elective office by using an at-large electoral system for school board races, according to a lawsuit filed this week.

No Latino has been elected to the seven-member board in the ABC Unified School District since 1997, although the ethnic group makes up nearly one-fourth of adults of voting age, according to the lawsuit filed by MALDEF, a leading Latino legal civil rights organization, and the Los Angeles law firm of Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho.

The district encompasses 30 schools in Artesia, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens and portions of Lakewood, Long Beach and Norwalk. Its students are 42% Latino, 26% Asian, 11% Filipino, 10% African American, 7% white and 1% native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.  

Under the at-large system, candidates can run from any part of the district and be selected by any voter. All seven current school board members reside in Cerritos; three are Asian, two white and two Filipinos.  The lawsuit demands a change to a district electoral system,  in which board members would be elected to represent particular areas.

"With the growing Latino student population nationwide, it is particularly important that our democratic processes work to secure adequate opportunity for the Latino community to elect its representatives to participate in school governance," MALDEF President Thomas A. Saenz said in a statement.

ABC Unified Supt. Mary Sieu said the district concluded after an extensive analysis of four board elections from 2003 to 2009 that the current electoral system does not unlawfully dilute Latino voting clout under the California Voting Rights Act. The analysis, which has not been publicly released, found that voters did not strictly vote for candidates of their own ethnic background, she said.

The lawsuit, however, alleges “racially polarized voting” in school board elections, with Latinos preferring different candidates than other voters.

Sieu also said that candidates elected from the entire district represent all students, rather than more narrow territorial interests. “We feel the at-large system has worked for us,” she said.

Sieu said the school board would meet next week to discuss a response to the lawsuit.

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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