A group of Latino men who sued the city Thursday allege that Visalia’s “at large” system of electing council members violates the California Voting Rights Act by making it nearly impossible for Latino candidates to win. The Superior Court lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the city to switch to district elections and hold them in even-numbered years, which would correspond with state and federal election cycles. Council members are currently elected in a citywide vote in odd-numbered years, with the top vote-getters winning. The lawsuit comes less than two months after a City Council election in which the only Latino candidate came in a distant fourth behind three white incumbents in the city of about 127,000 that is 46% Hispanic.
It will force the city into adopting district elections that will give Latinos power at the ballot box, said attorney Marguerite Melo, representing the plaintiffs.
“The at-large system dilutes the Latino vote,” she said.
Visalia is a holdout among larger Valley cities that have gradually switched to electing council members by district. Only one Latino candidate, Jesus Gamboa, who served in the 1990s and 2000s, has been elected to Visalia’s council.