At-large elections threatened throughout state


So you ran for city council (or school board or irrigation district trustee or the board of some other local agency) and lost? In this land where people seemingly never run out of legal appeals until they run out of money, there may still be hope for you.

It turns out there’s a new excuse for losing, one which can absolve many individuals of responsibility for inept campaigning or taking generally unacceptable stances on the issues, one that might even result in changing local electoral maps all over California.

For chances are if you ran and lost, you were defeated in an at-large campaign where your name was on ballots all over your city or utility district or whatever. At-large local elections are the rule almost everywhere in California, with elections by defined areas not the usual.

Most cities and districts set up their current systems believing it’s cheaper to run at-large elections. There’s also the notion that talent for and interest in some jobs may be concentrated in particular areas and not spread all over town.

But today’s election reality and the beliefs behind it are threatened by a new state appeals court ruling that upheld an obscure five-year-old law saying any minority group can sue to demand elections be held by district whenever it can be proven that past voting patterns have been “racially polarized.”

In short, when a city, county or school district contains a significant percentage of blacks - or Latinos or Sikhs or Armenians, or whatever - and no one from that group has been elected to the city council or governing board for several years, there are now legal grounds to sue for setting up localized election district boundaries.

The appeals decision stems from a Modesto case which accurately noted that although that city is now 25.6 percent Latino, only one Hispanic has been elected to the city council since 1911. The apparent presumption of the court, then, was that whites and blacks of all ethnic and religious varieties have long consciously avoided voting for Latinos.

The court did not address the possibility that Latino candidates may have been incompetent or unappealing in other ways. Nope, the fact that they were Latino and lost was enough for an appellate decision demanding that Modesto set up city council districts.

There can, of course, be times when this kind of reasoning is justified. The most famous such case arose in Watsonville during the 1980s, when the city became majority Hispanic, but because so few Latinos were American citizens and eligible to vote, nary a Latino made it onto the city council throughout a series of regularly scheduled elections despite the fact that several ran.

Federal courts forced Watsonville to set up districts of roughly equal population, even if some contained far fewer United States citizens and qualified voters than others. The result today is a Latino mayor and city manager, along with a city council that’s divided almost equally between Hispanics and others.

Latinos in the Watsonville case were able to prove that their lack of representation resulted in fewer city services of many types to their neighborhoods.

But no such proof is required under the 2002 law signed by Democratic ex-Gov. Gray Davis. All that’s needed is a finding of past racial polarization.

“The reality in California is that no racial group forms a majority,” wrote Justice Rebecca A. Wiseman (an appointee of Republican ex-Gov. Pete Wilson) for a unanimous 5th District state Court of Appeal. “As a result, any racial group can experience the kind of vote dilution that (law) was designed to combat, including whites.”

The kind of injustice this law plainly aims to correct does sometimes exist, as the Watsonville case proved. But there can be plenty of other reasons why candidates lose and lose consistently. For instance, what if one section of a city consists primarily of Muslim immigrants from Pakistan and some of them become citizens and run for office on a platform calling for adoption of Islamic restrictions on women’s dress, and those candidates lose in several consecutive at-large elections? Would those losses be due to racial polarization or the fact that the community at large won’t stomach burkas?

Under the just-upheld law, losing candidates in such a situation could claim a pattern of racial polarization, when in fact the results would have stemmed from candidates adopting generally unacceptable positions.

Lawyers who handled Modesto’s defense of the city’s at-large elections immediately indicated they would appeal to the state Supreme Court.

And well they should. For a law that allows losing candidates to play the racism card anytime they suffer a few defeats is not a good one and deserves to be struck down. On the other hand, a refined law that requires candidates to prove discrimination beyond mere apparent racial voting patterns could be a useful tool in correcting discrimination.

Elias is author of the bestselling book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.” His email address is