By Jean Merl
May 7, 2015
Palmdale officials Wednesday night announced that they have agreed to major changes in their elections system, settling a widely watched lawsuit over minority representation and the California Voting Rights Act.
Until now, Palmdale was a lone holdout in a string of lawsuits filed against cities that resisted district voting, which backers say helps minority groups gain elected office.
The city agreed to align its balloting to coincide with state and federal general elections, starting in November 2016. It also agreed to have voters choose elected officials by four geographic districts, including two with Latino majorities, rather than from the city as a whole.
Palmdale also will pay $4.5 million plus interest to lawyers for the three minority plaintiffs who argued that the city’s at-large voting system deprived them of opportunities to elect representatives of their choice.
The current City Council members will continue to serve until the next election, when the balloting for mayor — elected at large every two years — also will be held. Council terms can be staggered after that, according to the agreement.
The settlement represents the end of a three-year court battle and a major victory for voting rights activists.
Most cities, school districts and other jurisdictions targeted under the state’s voting rights law have switched rather than wage costly court battles. Santa Barbara and Whittier are among the most recent cities to agree to change from at-large to by-district elections.
Jurisdictions vulnerable to lawsuits under the act generally have significant minority populations but few or no minority elected officials. In Palmdale, minorities make up almost 75% of the population, but candidates of color rarely have won a seat on the City Council.
Advocates of district elections say they are one remedy to the vote dilution that is characteristic of at-large elections and that minorities have a better chance of winning elections from districts made up of a large proportion of their peers. They also say minorities have a better chance of winning when turnout is highest, so they have pushed for local governments to hold their contests to coincide with federal and state elections, held in November of even-numbered years.
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