Latino Group Threatens To Sue Escondido For Violating Voting Rights
December 13, 2011 1:48 p.m.
Jim Finberg is an attorney representing clients in Escondido threatening the lawsuit.
Cesar Diaz, the legislative director of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California.
Deborah Seiler, San Diego County Registrar of Voters.
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The city of Escondido has been put on notice. Change the way City Council members are elected or get sued. Civil rights attorneys say the city may be in violation of California voting rights law because Latinos are not being adequately represented on the City Council. But Escondido's mayor is quoted as saying the threat is an effort to overturn the voters' will. I'd like to welcome my guests, Jim Finberg is an attorney representing clients in Escondido, threatening the lawsuit. Welcome to the show.
FINBERG: Good afternoon.
CAVANAUGH: Cesar Diaz is the legislative director of the state building and construction trades counsel of California. Welcome.
DIAZ: Thank you very much.
CAVANAUGH: And Deborah Seiler is San Diego County registrar of voters. Hi, Deborah, welcome to Midday Edition.
SEILER: Hello, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Now, we invite our listeners to join the conversation if they'd like to comment on this story that's been in the headline, lately, about a threatened lawsuit over the way Escondido conducts its city elections. We asked members of the Escondido City Council to be with us today, but no one was available. Jim Finberg, the Escondido City Council is currently elected at large, which means by all city voters. How are Escondido's Latino residents' rights being violated by that system, that current voting system in.
FINBERG: The population of Escondido is approximately 49% Latino. In Escondido's 123-year history, only one open Latino has been elected to the City Council. The needs of the Latino community are not being met through the current at large system. Converting to a district based election system would make it more likely that on a regular basis, 1 or 2 Latinos would be elected from the city core, which has a heavy Latino population. In that case, the Latino population of Escondido would have a greater voice on the City Council.
CAVANAUGH: So what exactly do you want changed then? You want Escondido to divide its representative voting districts into individual districts?
FINBERG: Correct. Just as San Diego currently is divided into districts and San Francisco and Berkeley, and many other cities in California are. Instead of having voters at large, meaning that a voter anywhere in the city votes for all counsel members, divide the city up into districts where counsel members are elected from a particular district. That will reduce the cost of running for counsel, because one only will need to campaign from a particular district so there will be fewer barriers to running, and it will increase the voice of the Latino community.
CAVANAUGH: Who are you representing in this possible legal action?
FINBERG: We are representing Latino residents and voters from Escondido. And because members of the Latino community are often workers who are members of the construction and building trades, we are also the state building and construction trades council, which will be an organizational plaintiff in this lawsuit.
CAVANAUGH: Cesar, why is the construction trades counsel supporting this cause?
DIAZ: Part of our mission is to support members and their participation and their democratic institutions. Local elected boards, City Councils, all the way up to the federal government. And Escondido, we have hundreds of building trades members, particularly of Latino decent represented well by the City Council.
CAVANAUGH: Jim, I'm wondering, when you say that you're representing residents, Latino residents of Escondido, is this a particular group or how have the Latino residents of Escondido made it known that they wish you to pursue this legal action?
FINBERG: Well, for example, at the council meeting on Wednesday, December 7th, demetria Gomez who has lived in Escondido for approximately Faust years got up and asked the council to change from its current at large system to a district system. Mr. Gomez and his son, Oscar, will both be plaintiffs in this lawsuit.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Deborah Seiler, as San Diego County registrar of voters, is there a benefit to an at large voting system versus a geographically defined voting system?
SEILER: Well, are the benefit I suppose is that the voters -- all voters have a say in everyone who is elected. And one of the arguments made is that then all of the representatives on the counsel represent the entire citizenry of that particular city. On the other hand, of course, having district elections enables voters to select someone who represents their specific district.
CAVANAUGH: Why historically, if you know, have most cities used the at-large system where there aren't geographically defined districts?
DIAZ: It's my understanding, Maureen, that most cities have done this for pretty much the reason that I stated, that feeling that all of the City Council members should represent the entire city as opposed to breaking it into smaller islands of populations, if you will. But I think that more and more cities have gone to district elections recently.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you heard what Deborah said, Jim. What is your counter argument? Why is geographically defined voting system a better one to represent voters?
FINBERG: If one were to look at the U.S. House of Representatives, if you had an at-large system, that would mean that everyone in the country would vote for every member of the vote of representatives. Instead of the country being divided up into congressional districts. If we did that, we would have a far different House of Representatives than we currently have. The House of Representatives that we have now is more diverse and more specify to the needs of local congressional district, because our House of Representatives is divided up into separate congressional districts. In a city like San Francisco or San Diego, when you divide up into districts, you get a more diverse council, and a council that is more representative of the needs of particular communities.
CAVANAUGH: I just want to let our listeners know that we're taking your calls about this controversy in Escondido about the way City Council members are elected. 1-888-895-5727. Jim, has this lawsuit been filed?
FINBERG: No, it has not been filed. At the December 7th City Council meeting, Mr. Gomez handed a demand letter to the council and asked the council to change voluntarily. And if the council were to change voluntarily, then there would be no need for a lawsuit.
CAVANAUGH: And in reaction, Escondido mayor San Abed was quoted as saying this is a political move to overturn the voters' will. And I wonder, what is your reaction to that?
FINBERG: Well, I strongly disagree with the mayor's sentiment. This is a move to enforce the voting rights under the California voting rights act, and the federal voting rights act of Latino voters. The city of Escondido is currently violating those rights, and the whole purpose of this lawsuit is to insure that Latinos can participate in the democratic process on a level playing field.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Cesar Diaz of the California state building and construction trades council had to leave us because he was on a bad line. Laborer unions are supporting this cause, Jim, so I'm wondering iffed in, the mayor of Escondido saying this is it a political move, doesn't he have some ammunition to say that because we have some laborer unions behind it?
FINBERG: No. The Latino community in Escondido is heavily composed of working families, and many of those working families are union members. And bringing a lawsuit is difficult, it involves money and expertise. And so the union is supporting the requests of their members, in the Latino community, to help them on this issue.
CAVANAUGH: Deborah Seiler, what does the California voting rights act of 2001 say about district elections as opposed to at-large elections?
SEILER: The California voting rights act provides that where there is a protected class, which means a class of voters who are of a particular race or perhaps language minority group, and there's what they call racially polarized voting that limits the ability of those candidates to obtain office in that particular jurisdiction, then that establishes a violation under the act. And then at district elections need to be imposed.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
SEILER: It needs to be proven that racially polarized voting exists.
CAVANAUGH: Jim, what is the evidence that racially polarized voting does exist in Escondido?
FINBERG: Generally the way one proves that is through looking at returns in past elections and seeing if members of the Latino community tend to vote in similar ways, and if members of the nonLatino community tend to vote in different ways than members of the Latino community. And we have conducted some analyses of past elections and found that in fact the Latino community does tend to vote more similarly to itself than nonLatino communities do to Latino. For example in the 2006 City Council election, a Latino candidate, ogga-Diaz, and Carmen Miranda, received twice as much support from Latino voters as from white voters, but both were unsuccessful.
CAVANAUGH: Olga Diaz is now a member of the City Council, right?
FINBERG: She is. She is the only one in the 123-year history. In the 2008 City Council election, there was a ten point differential in Latino and white support for Latino candidate Olga Diaz. And the 2008 election was an aberrational election in that there was a presidential election with a person of color at the top of the ticket, and a very high turnout from people of color. We are concerned that on an ongoing bases, Ms. Diaz or other Latino candidates might not be on the board at all, and given that 49% of the population being Latino, one would conclude that there should be more representation than one out of five.
CAVANAUGH: And also, I believe that in part of the presentation to the City Council where the idea of a possible lawsuit was presented, the idea was that a lot of the policies pursued by the Escondido City Council are not in the interests of the Latino community. Is evidence like that used at all to determine whether or not a city should go to district elections?
FINBERG: Yes. Evidence like that is relevant to voting rights case, and in this case, we have all the elements that Ms. Taylor identified. The Latino community is a protected class, we do have the polarized voting based on the studies that the Latino community is voting differently. And there have been express appeals to race and ethnicity on the Escondido City Council. There have been anti-immigrant statements made by council members including deputy mayor Marie Waldrin, saying in a local newspaper that the country's values, heritage, and culture and language were under full attack because of immigrant populations.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Deborah Seiler, since there is this provision in the California voting rights act, why do you think more stays have not voluntarily changed their voting systems from at-large to district elections?
SEILER: I think the cities are probably still studying this to some degree. As you know, we've just completed the 2010 census process, and the redistricting process. I believe some of the reluctance may have to do with the fact that then they would be subject to redistricting their boundaries every ten years. But I know that there have been some cases brought. I know one was in modesto, and there are others as well where the cities were, in effect, required to change to district elections.
CAVANAUGH: And it's my understanding that the only city within the 18 cities of San Diego County that does have district elections as we speak is the City of San Diego.
SEILER: That is correct, yes.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what's the process? What process does a city have to go through to change its voting system? Do you have to put it to a vote?
SEILER: Well, according to the California government code, if a city wanted to change to district elections, they would need to submit a measure to the voters asking the voters if they want district elections. And the ordinance would have to provide for the number of districts. It could be 5, 7, or 9, and the ordinance would have to describe the boundaries of the various districts. A majority vote would be required for that to pass, and that would basically be the process. Now, I understand there may be other avenues, but I'll leave that one to the attorneys.
CAVANAUGH: And what are the other avenue, Jim?
FINBERG: As Ms. Taylor indicates, cal government code does say that a city may submit to the registered voters an ordinance providing for district elections. But that language, may, is permissive. We do not believe that it is exclusive, and certainly don't believe a City Council is prevented from taking steps to comply with the state law. So we think the council could take steps stocomply with the state law by itself. In addition, it's pretty clear that charter cities through their charters can provide for district elections. There's been talk in Escondido about moving to a charter city. But the draft of their charter did not provide for district elections. But it could have. And because this is a provision of law that can be enforced by the Courts under both a state and federal statute, if we do file a lawsuit, a court order, or a consent decree, entered in the case, could convert the city from an at-large system to a district based system, in which case the Court would super vise the appropriate drawing of the districts.
CAVANAUGH: This is an ongoing story, and if indeed in this lawsuit is filed, we'll be sure to check back in with it. Thank you so much.
FINBERG: Thank you, my pleasure.
DIAZ: You're welcome.