Minority plaintiffs seeking redress in the courts to combat various forms of minority vote dilution generally had only sections 2 and 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act to make their case. Section 5 only applies to election law changes and was recently nullified by the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2013 decision to invalidate its coverage formula, – leaving section 2 as the only feasible option for parties with vote dilution claims; Unless you happen to live in California.
The California Voting Rights Act (VRA) passed in 2001, makes it easier on plaintiffs to make the case that a particular election system -usually one which employs at-large voting- makes it difficult if not impossible for minority voters to elect its preferred candidates; The remedy being elections from single-member districts. According to Caltech professor and expert witness Morgan Krousser, the California VRA presents a much lower bar for plaintiffs. He says the statute’s language is intentionally broad in comparison to the federal VRA precisely to encourage litigation:
A violation of Section 14027 is established if it is shown that racially polarized voting occurs in elections for members of the governing body of the political subdivision or in elections incorporating other electoral choices by the voters of the political subdivision. Elections conducted prior to the filing of an action pursuant to Section 14027 and this section are more probative to establish the existence of racially polarized voting than elections conducted after the filing of the action.
Last June, lawsuits were filed against three local California jurisdictions; the city of Santa Clarita, the Sulphur Springs School District and Santa Clarita Community College School District in an attempt to get these jurisdictions to replace at-large elections with “less discriminatory” elections by districts. The same lawsuit under section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act would require substantially more in terms of proof in order to be successful, while the CVRA focuses mainly on the existence of racially polarized voting in recent elections.
Section 2 claims require the minority voting population in question to be compact enough to form a district of like-minded voters in addition to racially polarized voting. The CVRA, in contrast only requires proof that moving to district-based elections would allow minorities to ‘influence’ the election more than they have been under an at-large system.
The CVRA appears to be an effectual tool for ending local at-large voting schemes. According to a report for the Santa Clarita Valley school districts by Sacramento consulting firm Redistricting Partners, no defendant has successfully defended against a CVRA lawsuit and many have resulted in legal costs exceeding $1 million. The defendant jurisdictions however, are striving to be the first to fend off a CVRA lawsuit.