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MALDEF Seeks By-District Elections in Fullerton District after Study of Demographic, Electoral Data

July 23, 2015

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) sent a letter on July 17 to the Fullerton Joint Union High School District (in Orange County), demanding that it change its at-large elections system to a district-based system. The Fullerton district currently elects its Board of Trustees using an at-large method that MALDEF contends has denied Latino residents the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. MALDEF demands the system be changed to a district-based system.

“At-large elections in the context of racially polarized voting are not only a threat to voting rights, but also to the success of California’s school funding system – the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) – which depends upon vigorous input and oversight by the communities most affected by the ongoing education gap in the state,” stated Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF President and General Counsel. “As a result, remedying California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA) violations in school board elections is of heightened importance.”

MALDEF, which has its headquarters in Los Angeles, conducted an investigation after receiving numerous complaints from Latino citizens and voters within the Fullerton Joint Union High School District that its’ at-large election system prevented Latino voters from electing candidates to the Board. MALDEF’s investigation found that only one Latino candidate has been elected to the Board of Trustees in the last two decades, despite the fact that Latinos make up 42 percent of the district population and more than half of its student body.

“This demand is part of MALDEF’s continuing effort to ensure that Latinos have access to the political process,” added Matthew Barragan, MALDEF Staff Attorney. “The CVRA was enacted to eliminate discriminatory at-large election systems. MALDEF has placed the District on notice that it must shift to a district-based election system to assure compliance with the CVRA.”

The CVRA states that “[A]n at-large method of election may not be imposed or applied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.” Based on an investigation that also reviewed election returns, demographic information, and Spanish-surname analysis of votes cast by precinct, MALDEF found that the lack of success of Latino candidates results from persistent racially polarized voting in Fullerton Joint Union High School District’s at-large elections. The District’s at-large election system violates the CVRA and must be changed to a district election system.

The right to vote is fundamental to the strength of our democracy and must be protected for all citizens across the United States. MALDEF has continually fought for equitable board representation for all communities throughout California and will protect the right to a political voice wherever it may be threatened.

A copy of the letter can be viewed here.

In the 1980s, MALDEF waged a lengthy (and ultimately successful) legal battle that forced the City of Watsonville (in southern Santa Cruz County) to switch from at-large elections to by-district elections for city council members. That case obviously predated the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, and was based on the U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In recent years, a different group – the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area – won a 2008 lawsuit against the Madera school district forcing a change from at-large to by-district elections for school board trustees, citing the California Voting Rights Act. The group subsequently sent letters to a number of California school districts, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento Valley, threatening to take them to court if they do not switch from at-large to by-district elections for their school board trustees. Merced, Woodland and several other school districts in Central Valley counties have made the change as a result; Modesto is in the midst of a transition from at-large to by-district school board elections.

Sources:  MALDEF, EdBrief staff.

A Total School Solutions publication.