The drive to increase Latino representation on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has taken a fascinating turn. In an audacious move to bypass the supervisors, Latino leaders, public policy reformers and civil libertarians are backing state legislation that would give a judge the power to expand the five-member board.
An increase in the size of the board has been long sought by Latino leaders wanting more representation and by county government critics who say five supervisors aren’t enough to lead such a big county. Most of the supervisors have opposed this.
Judicial expansion of the board to nine members would make possible the drawing of more supervisorial districts with substantial numbers of Hispanic voters, giving Latino candidates a good chance of winning. Now Gloria Molina is the only one in a county where 48 percent of the 10 million residents are Latino. A judge could also clear the way for a new district where an Asian American could win election to the board for the first time. Asian Americans amount to 14.6 percent of the county’s population.
The proposal is part of a bill, SB1365, by State Sen. Alex Padilla of Los Angeles, designed to strengthen state laws protecting minority voting rights by toughening the California Voting Rights Act. Padilla and his supporters focused on this after the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the federal Voting Rights Act. Padilla, who is running for secretary of state, California’s chief election officer , said the measure was designed to protect the state from the Supreme Court Voting Rights Act decision.
The bill makes it easier for civil rights groups and others to go to court and sue local governments for denying voter rights to minorities. This has been an issue in Santa Barbara, Palmdale, Whittier, Bellflower and some school districts
Under the Padilla bill, a superior court judge, seeking ways to increase minority representation, can issue an order “increasing the size of the governing body.” It applies to the entire state but is particularly relevant to Los Angeles County because of the long redistricting dispute.
Bardis Vakilli, attorney for the American Civil Liberties of Southern California, supporting Padilla’s bill, told me a judge would have authority to order such a Los Angeles County board expansion. The judge, he explained, would have to find county has drawn the districts in a way that diluted minority votes. If a judge decided such discriminatory conduct could be fixed by enlargement of the board, “the bill would give the judge authority to do that.”
Two redistricting experts who have long been active in trying to get more Latino representation on the board criticized Padilla’s bill. Alan Clayton and Saeed Ali wrote Padilla and members of the Latino Legislative Caucus that the bill violates the Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act decision, and could result in the high court eventually overturning the entire California voting rights law.
But with the supervisors so recalcitrant, going to court may be the only way to assure fair representation. Democracy is strengthened when everyone—all ethnic groups—have a chance to participate.