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L.A. County rejects Santa Clarita districts' elections proposal

Six school districts and a water district were seeking to consolidate elections to avoid possible voting rights lawsuits brought against other local governments.

April 30, 2013|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County supervisors rejected a bid Tuesday from several Santa Clarita Valley school districts and a water district hoping to consolidate elections in a bid to avoid the kind of voting rights lawsuits that other local governments have been hit with.

The measure failed on a 2-2 vote, with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas abstaining. County election officials opposed the change, arguing that shifting the districts to November even-year elections would exceed their ability to conduct elections.

An increasing number of cities and districts have been sued in recent years over allegations that their election rules violate the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of minority voters.

The cities of Compton and Modesto switched from at-large to district elections after unsuccessfully fighting costly voting rights suits. More recently, the city of Palmdale and the ABC Unified School District in southeastern Los Angeles County have been hit with similar complaints.

Gloria Mercado-Fortine, a board member with the William S. Hart Union High School District in Santa Clarita, said that system and the others that joined in the request — four feeder elementary school districts and the Santa Clarita Community College District — have not received a specific threat of litigation.

But she said the districts had received inquiries about their election systems and saw the writing on the wall in the lawsuit against neighboring Palmdale.

"It appears that it's coming right down the state, from north to south," she said. "We're trying to do the right thing here. We truly believe that we want to be very inclusive and increase participation."

The districts — all of which use at-large voting systems — commissioned a joint demographic study that found moving to by-district elections would not necessarily increase minority voting power because the minority population was "substantially dispersed." So instead they requested that the county allow them to consolidate their elections with the statewide general election in a bid to increase voter participation in their elections.

Newhall County Water District joined in the request.

The districts would not provide a copy of the demographic study, citing attorney-client privilege. The population of the Santa Clarita Valley was 60.7% white and 24.4% Latino in 2011, according to the college district.

Officials with the county registrar-recorder said that allowing the districts to move their elections might overload the county's voting system, which has limited room on each ballot. According to the office, large portions of the county are already at 75% capacity in even-year November elections.

The office is in the process of modernizing its system, but officials said the new one will not be in place in time for the November 2014 election.

Supervisors Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes the Santa Clarita Valley, and Don Knabe sided with the school districts.

No governmental entity has successfully fought a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act to date. Rod Pacheco, a former Riverside County district attorney who has made a study of the act, said most cities and districts initially fought the suits vigorously but eventually settled.

"Government entities are starting to see the light and starting to make changes in their governance structure" to comply with the act before facing litigation, Pacheco said.

Paul Mitchell, whose firm, Redistricting Partners, did the study for the Santa Clarita school districts, said his company has fielded an increasing number of requests in recent years from governments interested in preemptively switching to by-district elections, and dozens throughout the state have made the change.

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