Across California, cities, school districts, even water boards are scrambling to comply with the state’s Voting Rights Act and settle costly lawsuits, or avoid them altogether. Palmdale is an exception. Leaders in the Antelope Valley city have lost court battles and racked up big legal bills fighting to keep their system of electing officials, which a trial court last year ruled violates minority voters’ rights. An appeals court recently agreed with the trial judge on some points, and now the city is asking the state Supreme Court to step in. “I think every city in California needs to wake up. … We should all unite instead of folding,” Palmdale Mayor James Ledford said. He repeated his view that the lawsuits are “nothing but a money grab” by the plaintiffs’ attorneys.
The city has reported spending $1.5 million on private attorneys and recently was ordered to pay nearly $3.6 million in plaintiffs’ lawyers fees. The plaintiffs successfully argued that Palmdale’s at-large balloting violates the California Voting Rights Act because it deprives minorities of the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.
The lawsuit echoed others filed in jurisdictions with large minority populations but few or no minorities on their elected governing boards. All a plaintiff needs to do, experts on the 12-year-old law say, is demonstrate that racially polarized voting exists. That can be done with election results that show contrasting outcomes between predominantly minority precincts and white ones.