Two years ago, the city of Palmdale settled a lawsuit alleging that its system of electing all four council members by citywide votes was rigged against Latinos and other minorities. In addition to a $4.5-million payout, the city agreed to scrap its “at large” voting system and create four separate council districts, including two with Latino majorities. The result? The city had one appointed Latino council member before the rules change. It still has just one, though that member was elected. Facing the threat of similar lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act, several dozen cities across the state have switched from citywide elections in which all voters choose everyone on the council, to district elections in which geographically divided groups of voters each elect their own representative. And more are preparing to switch. But those efforts have so far failed to deliver a surge of Latino political representation inside California’s city halls.
Of the 22 cities that have made the move to district elections since June, only seven saw an overall gain in Latino council members, according to an analysis by GrassrootsLab, a consulting firm that specializes in local government politics.
The results underscore the challenges Latinos face in gaining representation in local government even in communities, such as Palmdale, where they make up a majority of the population.