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SCVNews.com | Report: Schools Have ‘Some Vulnerability’ to Voting-Rights Suit | 08-19-2013
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A demographer’s report obtained by KHTS AM-1220 on Monday, which was paid for by local school districts, shows there is “some vulnerability” to a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.

Three such lawsuits were filed against local governing boards in June.

The city of Santa Clarita, the Sulphur Springs School District and the Santa Clarita Community College School District were all hit with lawsuits in the last weeks of June, which allege a violation of the California Voting Rights Act due to “racially polarized voting.”

“The law does not create an oversight agency or deadline,” according to a report by Paul Mitchell of Redistricting Partners. “But makes it incredibly easy for plaintiffs to sue a district and have the court intervene and draw district lines that would empower the ethnic community.”

The report was sought by nearly all Santa Clarita Valley school districts, in consideration of the possibility of a lawsuit. The report also creates hypothetical districts as a remedy.

“The report goes through some analysis, and the conclusion is that there is racially polarized voting and that Latino candidates consistently lose because of racially charged voting,” said Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman & Hughes.

Hart district board President Joe Messina said the report doesn’t cite districting as the end-all solution, and questioned the rationale behind the remedies suggested.

“My prayer is that we all get together and fight it,” said Messina, who leads the board for the Williams S. Hart Union High School District. “The report is obviously not conclusive. How do you explain (Latina Hart board member) Gloria Mercado-Fortine, who wins by large numbers every time she runs?” Messina asked rhetorically.

School officials authorized $30,000 from the 2011-12 budget for the report to assess the possibilities regarding districts in the Santa Clarita Valley.

The report spells out “the ingredients for a successful lawsuit” with four basic grounds: a) a “pattern of racial bloc voting by minority groups, and a counteracting racial bloc by a majority group;” b) “evidence that the racially polarized voting works to deny the minority their candidate of choice;” c) “the ability to prove that a districted system would allow the minority group to ‘influence the outcome’ of an election; d) “any additional evidence of discrimination, differentials in socioeconomic outcomes for ethnic groups, or political campaigns that appeal to race or ethnicity.”

The lawsuits filed by Jim Soliz and Rosemarie Sanchez-Fraser, allege that local at-large voting, which allows local voters throughout the Santa Clarita Valley to choose board members regardless of where they live, limits the access of Latino voters.

Before the lawsuits were filed, school boards throughout the Santa Clarita Valley — even those who have elected members of a “protected class,” which, in this case, is Latino voters — requested permission from Los Angeles County to move their elections to even-numbered years.

Mercado-Fortine, a Latina who serves on the William S. Hart Union High School District governing board, said the request to move their election was a “proactive” move.

Moving elections to even-numbered years to line up with major elections is one remedy to address CVRA violations, because it encourages a larger turnout in the polls, according to officials.

However, county officials rebuffed the move, citing the expense that would encumber its November elections, if it had to fit the elections for all governing bodies in Los Angeles on the same ballot.

The Hart district, which is essentially a valleywide, 23,000-student district for junior highs and high schools, has not been hit with a lawsuit.

Mercado-Fortine is running for City Council next year, and said she doesn’t see access for Latinos or Latinas as a problem.

“I tell you, the way our valley is, it’s becoming very diverse, but that diversity is spread out throughout the valley,” she said in a July 5 interview. “There’s not huge geographic areas that are populated by Latinos or other groups.

“I do feel that in our valley, having at-large elections, it really gives everybody an opportunity to vote for anyone that they want.”

The largest percentage of eligible voting-age Latinos in a valleywide, five-district election hypothesized by redistricting partners is 23 percent. In a seven-district map, that number is approximately 25 percent, according to the report.

In preparation for the lawsuits, Shenkman used a different demographer who he said had higher figures for percentages of Latinos in a district, however, the data could not be attained as of this story’s publication.

Messina said he expects the Hart district to be sued.

“I anticipate a lawsuit,” Messina said. “I anticipate him coming after every (school district) because money is involved. If the only resolution is to redistrict, then if we don’t, what’s to stop him.”

The fact that the Hart district elects Latino or Latina candidates doesn’t equate to a lack of racially polarized voting, Shenkman said.

The report states the Santa Clarita Valley electorate is “marginally polarized along ethnic lines,” and also adds, “in local elections, white voters tend to counteract the bloc voting of the Latino population.”

There is also “some limited evidence” that Latinos cannot elect their candidates of choice. An example cited is the election of now-Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, who successfully ran for COC’s governing board against Patrick Hill.

“Latinos bloc voted for Hill, but were bloc voted against by white voters and lost to the district majority,” the report states.

“Latinos have shown a weakness in promoting and electing candidates from their community,” according to Mitchell’s report, citing the fact that three Latinos have been elected in the region in the last five years.

The report states the results could result from “a lack of infrastructure within this community or it could be a rational decision based on community views that they cannot earn endorsements, raise money or gain the acceptance necessary to win local elections.”

On the fourth point cited, “the most heavily Latino and lower income portions of the districts have not elected a representative from their community in the last decade.”

While not explicitly a CVRA issue, only one candidate in the last 10 years living north of Newhall Ranch Road was elected to the SCCCD board.

“Due to the CVRA, dozens of cities, school districts and community college boards are converting to districted systems before facing a lawsuit,” Mitchell’s report states. “This could be a rational choice for the Santa Clarita CCD, even though the CVRA analysis is not conclusive on this point.”

Shenkman’s firm, who’s joined by the firm of Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, in several lawsuits filed in recent months, recently won an initial decision against Palmdale on the same grounds.

Palmdale officials have vowed to fight the move.

The California Voting Rights Act states:

A violation of Section 14027 is established if it is shown that racially polarized voting occurs in elections for members of the governing body of the political subdivision or in elections incorporating other electoral choices by the voters of the political subdivision. Elections conducted prior to the filing of an action pursuant to Section 14027 and this section are more probative to establish the existence of racially polarized voting than elections conducted after the filing of the action.

The report also notes that no CVRA claim has ever been successfully defended, several have been lost with legal costs exceeding $1 million and most cases are settled resulting in district lines that are drawn by the courts.

“It would be nice to have some real direction — some clear direction,” Messina said, alluding to what he considers problems with the California Voting Rights Act.

College of the Canyons officials said they could not comment on the report because it involved pending litigation against the district.

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