by SUEVON LEE | @suevlee
The City of Fullerton in Orange County, Calif. has settled a lawsuit brought by two civil rights groups alleging that its use of at-large elections denies Asian Americans and other minority groups collective voting power, the groups announced in a statement Wednesday.
Under the settlement, Fullerton—a city southeast of L.A. whose population is nearly a quarter Asian American and one-third Latino—must develop a district-based election system to replace the current one where residents vote for the five sitting council members no matter where they live, and present it as a ballot measure in the Nov. 2016 elections.
The agreement comes just four months after the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles sued the city on behalf of Korean American resident Jonathan Paik under the California Voting Rights Act.
“It was a recognition on the part of the city that it’s a direction that made sense for Fullerton,” Laboni Hoq, litigation director at AAAJ, told KoreAm of the settlement. “We’re happy with the way the process moved and that we were able to do this without too much litigation.”
The settlement requires the city hold community meetings to educate residents about district-based elections—in which the city is carved into separate districts, council members live in the districts they represent and are elected by voters of those districts—and also give voters a say in how these district lines will be drawn.
“The lines that are drawn will be subject to a lot of community input,” Hoq said. “It’s really the heart of the matter to make sure that all of Fullerton’s residents are represented both with respect to geographic location as well as their racial makeup. The crux of the law is to ensure that communities of color are in a position where they can vote for their candidate of choice.”
Fullerton contains a large cluster of Asian Americans in its northwest quadrant and a large concentration of Latinos in the southern quadrant, according to Hoq.
The March lawsuit pointed out that only two Asian Americans had ever won election to the Fullerton City Council “despite the fact that many Asian American candidates have run for Council seats.”
This wasn’t the first lawsuit urging Fullerton to change its voting procedures. Last year, Vivian Jaramillo, who ran unsuccessfully for a City Council seat in 2006 and 2010, sued the city, alleging vote dilution among Latino voters.
Before the Paik lawsuit was filed, the city had reached a settlement with Jaramillo to develop a plan to put a district-based elections plan before voters, says Kimberly Hall Barlow, legal counsel for the city of Fullerton.
“The City has always been fully committed to ensuring the full voting rights of all its citizens,” Barlow told KoreAm by email Wednesday. “The citizens of Fullerton have elected both Latino and Asian candidates and we expect that diversity to continue.”
FairVote, a nonprofit that advocates for electoral reform, notes that at-large elections systems “allow 50 percent of voters to control 100 percent of seats, and in consequence typically result in racially and politically homogenous elected bodies.” As a result, the nonprofit points out, at-large elections systems typically have been struck down by the Voting Rights Act for denying communities of color fair representation.
Under the Paik settlement, if district-based elections are approved by voters next November, it will take immediate effect for the next City Council election. Furthermore, the city must provide Korean and Spanish translations of informational material about the ballot measure as well as of the ballot measure language itself. Additionally, the city is required to provide a Mandarin-speaking interpreter at meetings held in the Northeast and Northwest quadrants of the city during the public hearings.
Featured image courtesy of Neon Tommy/Flickr