California Voting Rights Act Upheld in Federal Court After Gerrymandering Lawsuit
Requires local governments to switch to elections by district if a local minority group can show racial polarization
February 13, 2019
A San Diego politician lost his federal lawsuit challenging California's Voting Rights Act. Don Higginson, former mayor of Poway, a city in San Diego County, had sued in 2017, claiming the drawing of new districts in his area was effectively gerrymandering and was designed to discriminate against him and other whites.
Higginson was represented by the nonprofit Project on Fair Representation, a legal defense firm concerned with challenging racial and ethnic classifications and preferences in state and federal law.
U.S. District Judge William Hayes of San Diego said that Higginson had presented no evidence of gerrymandering on the basis of race. In addition, he said election officials may consider race for certain purposes, such as allowing representation for minorities in areas where that as been lacking. The only bar is that voters not be separated into different districts "on the basis of race."
Supporting the state law in the action was Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. After the ruling, Saenz said, that Hayes's ruling "appropriately distinguished California's attempt to remedy and prevent racial discrimination in voting from discrimination itself."
Edward Blum, president of the Project on Fair Representation, said, "We are disappointed with the ruling. We have every intention of seeking an appeal (in) the Ninth Circuit, and beyond if necessary." He was referring to a possible appeal ending up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
The California Voting Rights Act, passed in 2002, requires local governments to switch from at-large elections to elections by district if a local minority group can show racial polarization toward the majority in elections. The law supposedly requires proof that a majority racial group has historically voted to elect candidates from their own racial group or that this majority group has passed race-related ballot measures that were opposed by the minority group.
In a 2006 challenge to the California VRA, the California courts upheld the law. The U.S. Supreme Court at that time denied reviewing the case.
However, in 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a portion of the federal version of the Voting Rights Act. The suit in that case was brought by Blum's organization, and the Court struck down a provision of the federal law that required state and local governments with a history of racial bias to seek Justice Department approval before either changing district boundaries or voting rules. Speaking for the majority in the 5-4 ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts said the "pervasive discrimination" that might have once justified the law no longer existed.
In Santa Monica, a Superior Court judge recently ruled that the city must move from at-large to districting elections. While hailed as a victory by the Pico neighborhood and Latino activists, the City plans to file an appeal.