FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – In a rare challenge of a California voting district, a federal judge sided with residents that Kern County “dilutes” Latino voters’ influence through discriminatory district lines drawn in 2011.
The plaintiffs, represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), argued that while more than half of Kern County’s population is Latino, just one of the county’s five voting districts is majority-Latino. They claim the county crafted districts to spread out the Latino vote to protect incumbents and create an uneven playing field for Latino candidates.
U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd said the county’s method of electing Board of Supervisors candidates is “not equally open to participation by Latino voters” and violates the Voting Rights Act.
“The evidence before the court supports a finding that voting in Kern County is frequently racially polarized,” Drozd said in a 70-page ruling issued Feb. 23.
Los Angeles-based MALDEF applauded Drozd's decision, saying the plaintiffs hope the county will implement fair districting lines in time for the 2018 election.
“Today’s decision should stand as a warning to other counties in California, a number of which also failed to comply with the Voting Rights Act during the last round of redistricting,” Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, said in a statement. “The growing Latino community is entitled to representation, and drawing lines to protect incumbents risks costly litigation to secure an eventual remedy to protect voters' rights.”
Saenz added the lawsuit was the first challenge to a California jurisdiction for violating the Voting Rights Act since 2001.
Lead plaintiff Oscar Luna, et al., sued Kern County and its Board of Supervisors in Fresno Federal Court in 2016, claiming Latino voters are able to elect only one of five board members though just over 51 percent of the county’s population is Latino. Drozd denied the plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment in June 2017, and an 11-day bench trial followed in December.
The trial featured testimony by renowned labor activist and Kern County resident Dolores Huerta along with current and former Latino county supervisors who support redistricting. Nearly two dozen witnesses testified and the parties admitted over 150 exhibits, along with post-trial briefs.
The county called on its demographer as well as a variety of current and former county supervisors. The county hired outside counsel from Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leoni of San Rafael.
After ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, Drozd ordered the matter to remediation with a court hearing set for March 6.
Kern County and its seat Bakersfield sit at the southern end of California’s Central Valley. Its primary industries are oil and agriculture.
Neither the county nor its attorneys immediately responded to interview requests.
MALDEF says Kern County’s Latino voting community has been “unlawfully divided for decades” and that it looks forward to the court’s remedy.