Atlantic Cities
Democracy in America

Fixing a City by Dividing It Up

Fixing a City by Dividing It Up
Reuters

Residents in Escondido, California, want their local elected officials to be a little more local.

A group of voters filed a lawsuit calling on the city to divide the city into voting districts. As it stands now, city council members in Escondido are elected at-large, meaning there are no geographic restrictions for where candidates live in the city or who can vote for them. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that this system of voting has disproportionally underrepresented the city’s Latin American population.

Nearly 49 percent of the city’s 143,900 residents are Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2010 Census. But as this article from the San Diego Union-Tribune notes, only one “openly Latino” council member has been elected in the city’s more than 120-year history. No member of the council lives in the city’s central, largely Latino core.

The lawsuit [PDF] is being pushed by five locals and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, and it alleges that the city is in violation of both the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The suit notes that "the City Council elected through Escondido’s existing at-large system has aggressively pursued policies that have divided the community along racial and ethnic lines and given Escondido a national reputation as vigorously anti-Latino."

The city of Escondido has been somewhat more aggressive than its neighbors in addressing immigration issues. According to this article from the North County Times, Escondido has passed or proposed a number of policies focusing on illegal immigrants. The city has also worked closely with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to "detect and arrest illegal immigrants." A 2006 ordinance proposed by the city would have punished landlords who rented to illegal immigrants, but push back and criticism from civil rights leaders eventually caused the city to abandon the plan.

The lawsuit argues that the issue of illegal immigration has skewed the city’s elected officials away from serving the needs of its Latino population. It notes that the number of hate crimes against Latinos doubled in Escondido between 2009 and 2010. The lawsuit also suggests that the city’s leadership has a prejudice against the city’s Latino population. As part of the campaign leading up to his election in 2010, Mayor Sam Abed issued a campaign flyer that, according to the lawsuit, depicted a group of Latinos trying to cross a highway with the tagline 'There is only one candidate we can trust to uphold the rule of law in Escondido.'

Abed has come out forcefully against the lawsuit, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

"It’s not going to happen," Mayor Sam Abed said late last week about the demand to switch to geographic district elections. "I am happy to spend whatever it takes — $3 million, $5 million — to keep this city united."

But despite his wishful thinking, the city may still have to pay. Settlement of another voting rights case in Modesto, California, in 2008 cost the city $3 million. Irving, Texas, opted to settle a case in 2010 and change its voting system rather than spending upwards of $600,000 to appeal the decision.

It’s a decision many other cities have had to make in recent years. A similar lawsuit was filed earlier this year in the southern California city of Whittier, and the possibility of adding at-large council members to the ballot in Tulsa had many in the city worried about civil rights lawsuits. Underrepresented minority populations have also been an issue for school districts, most of which in California had used at-large voting. But the passage of the state’s Voting Rights Act has urged some to change in order to avoid lawsuits, and in the process cost state taxpayers millions in legal fees.

Though Escondido’s mayor has pledged to pay the price to fight the voting change, the plaintiffs – including the relatively deep pockets of State Building and Construction Trades Council of California – are willing to fight as well. They’re hoping to have the city’s voting rules changed in time for the 2012 elections cycle.

Photo credit: John Gress/Reuters

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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