In the 11 years since the California Voting Rights Act was passed, no municipality whose at-large election system was challenged has ever won its case. Almost all have settled before going to trial, in most cases agreeing to switch to voting by geographic districts. It's not a perfect solution to the problems caused by at-large voting — critics complain that establishing legislative districts in city council races can Balkanize a city — but it is the best remedy available.
The problem with at-large systems is that they often dilute the voting power of minority groups, whose preferred candidates might be able to win if they ran in their own neighborhoods but who find it impossible to win over an absolute majority of voters citywide. That appears to be the case in the city of Whittier, which is being sued by activists for unfair election practices: Roughly half of the registered voters are Latino, yet the city has elected only one Latino council member in its 115-year history and none in the last decade.
But instead of responding to the voting rights lawsuit by establishing a pure district system, as other municipalities have done, Whittier officials have offered a compromise that, at first glance, appears reasonable. They have suggested a new structure for the City Council in which four members would be elected by district and the fifth would be elected at-large. The fifth council member would also serve as mayor — but would have no more power than the other council members and would vote with them as well. (Currently, the council members are all elected at-large and they choose one of themselves to be mayor for a short term.) Whittier has scheduled a special election in June for residents to vote on this change.
But Whittier's compromise is insufficient. It is unlikely to allow Latinos a fighting chance at changing the balance of power there. Even if the winners of the four district seats reflect the wishes of the voting population — even if, say, two whites and two Latinos were elected — that still leaves one seat to be decided at-large and subject to the same racially polarized voting patterns that have long plagued Whittier.
The Voting Rights Act doesn't promise Latino voters a City Council majority. But it does promise that their voting strength won't be diluted and that they will have the opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice. Unfortunately, even one at-large seat would prevent that from happening.
The best way for Whittier, like other cities, to fix its system is to switch to district voting. If it doesn't agree to do so in a settlement, a court should enjoin the city from holding scheduled at-large municipal elections in April and put a halt to the city's unfair voting practices once and for all.