Latinos Challenge Kern County Redistricting

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) — Kern County’s redistricting plan discriminates against Latinos, in violation of the Voting Rights Act, disgruntled voters claim in Federal Court.
     Lead plaintiff Oscar Luna et al. sued Kern County and its Board of Supervisors on Friday, saying that though more than half of Kern County’s population is Latino, they are able to elect only one of five board members because the district lines dilute Latino voting strength.
     Kern County, whose seat is Bakersfield, is at the southern end of California’s great Central Valley.
     “This complaint challenges the 2011 redistricting plan of the Kern County Board of Supervisors because it unlawfully discriminates against plaintiffs in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S.C. § 10301. This action is filed on behalf of Latino citizens of Kern County whose right to vote has been abridged on the basis of race and national origin. The Kern County redistricting plan denies Latino voters an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice,” the complaint states.
     Just over 51 percent of Kern County’s 882,176 people are Latino, according to Census Bureau estimates for July 2015. Only one of five districts in the 2011 plan is majority Latino, and it divides a potential second politically cohesive Latino district in north in two, according to the complaint.
     The second smallest of Kern’s electoral districts, District 5, is comprised of Arvin and Lamont, farming towns with predominantly Latino populations, and the outskirts of Bakersfield and Oildale.
     Latino voters there have consistently elected Latino supervisors over the past 20 years, but no Latino candidate has won a supervisorial contest outside that district during the same period, according to the complaint.
     Kern’s Latino residents tend to live in smaller towns with links to agriculture, such as Lost Hills, Arvin, McFarland, Lamont, Delano, and Weedpatch, according to the Census Bureau and the county itself.
     During public hearings on redistricting, several Latino community members submitted plans that would increase the number of Latino-dominant districts from one to two to reflect the growth in the Latino population. But the board ignored them in favor of a plan that maintained the one-district status quo and “fractured” the second potential district, according to the complaint.
     The new district lines took effect in 2012. The plaintiffs call it just the latest incident in a long history of discrimination against Latinos in Kern County.
     Delano, the county’s northernmost city, was the center of the great 1965-70 grape strike, and the home of the United Farmworkers Union.
     “Latinos in Kern County bear the effects of longstanding societal, economic, and educational discrimination, effects that are apparent in the areas of education, employment, housing, and health. Such discriminatory effects hinder Latino voters’ ability to participate effectively in the political process,” the complaint states.
     Kern County has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of police killings in the nation. Of the 13 men killed in 2015, most were Latino. Kern’s death rate for Latinos at police hands is 1.6 per 100,000, triple the statewide rate of 0.49 percent per 100,000.
     Voting in Kern County is also racially polarized, with Latino voters typically voting as a cohesive political bloc for predominantly Latino candidates and non-Latino voters voting as a bloc for non-Latino candidates. Thus, Latinos cannot elect Latino candidates outside areas where they comprise a majority of eligible voters, according to the complaint.
     “There is, and historically has been, a lack of responsiveness on the part of County Supervisors to the particularized needs of the Latino residents of Kern County,” the complaint states.
     Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner told Courthouse News in an email: “Although the complaint alleges very little facts, it appears to be an attempt to re-argue for supervisorial district lines promoted five years ago by Ms. Dolores Huerta and her staff.”
     Dolores Huerta is a longtime leader of the United Farmworkers Union, which she co-founded with the late Cesar Chavez.
     Goldner said the Board of Supervisors considered Huerta’s proposal, but rejected it after several months of review, testimony and research.
     “The County of Kern complied with the Voting Rights Act in every respect and will continue to do so on behalf of all voters in all communities, including the Latino community. We anticipate a favorable outcome in this matter,” Goldner said.
     The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the 2011 redistricting plan violates the Voting Rights Act and an injunction preventing the county from conducting Board of Supervisor elections under the plan and ordering it to adopt a new plan that does not discriminate against anyone based on race or ethnicity.
     They are represented by Matthew Barragan with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund of Los Angeles, who did not immediately return an emailed request for comment.

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