Voting rights violation filed against Cerritos-based ABC Unified

A civil rights group has sued the Southern California-based ABC Unified School District, alleging its at-large method of electing district trustees violates the California Voting Rights Act by denying Latino candidates a fair chance at winning a seat.

ABC, which serves students in the cities of Artesia, Cerritos, Hawaiian Gardens, and sections of Lakewood, Long Beach and Norwalk, hasn’t had a Latino on the school board in more than 15 years, even though 32 percent of residents within the district’s boundaries are Latino, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday by MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. Nearly 44 percent of students in the district are Latino, according to the state Department of Education. All seven current board members live in the city of Cerritos, which has the largest population in the district, with the lowest percentage of Hispanic residents, based on U.S. Census Bureau figures.

Like nearly every district in the state, ABC selects school board members through at-large elections, which allow candidates to live anywhere in the school district boundaries rather than in specific neighborhoods.  The suit charges that this has created racially polarized voting. “You have a pattern over time where the preferences of Latino voters are different from non-Latino voters, significantly different,” said Thomas Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “The Latino population gets outvoted all the time.”

MALDEF is asking the court to require the district to switch from at-large elections to a neighborhood or zone system, which allows voters to elect local candidates.

ABC Unified denies the charges. “My response to the lawsuit is that our position is that we don’t believe we violated the California Voting Rights Act,” said Superintendent Mary Sieu. The district’s legal counsel conducted a full demographic study earlier this year after receiving a complaint letter regarding at-large voting, Sieu said, and concluded that the district “did not violate the California Voting Rights Act based on racial polarization during the elections.”

The school board is holding a closed special session next week to discuss the litigation. Sieu said one item they’ll be discussing with district lawyers is whether and how the case could be settled out of court.


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6 Responses to “Voting rights violation filed against Cerritos-based ABC Unified”

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  1. el on Apr 16, 2013 at 1:17 pm04/16/2013 1:17 pm

    • 000

    I am personally not thrilled by the idea of zoned voting always being better than at-large. For one thing, it necessarily diminishes your candidate pool – suppose you had two really terrific and appropriate community members living on the same street. Now those two can no longer both serve on the school board, regardless of their qualifications and their varied life experience.

    I also think it’s valuable in most districts of small to moderate size to have people voting for all the members. Zones for a district like LAUSD make sense, but not so much for districts that cover smaller areas.

    So have there been candidates fielded from support of the latino community who were defeated in elections? Rather than start with this litigation for zoned elections, why not start by fielding a couple of candidates and put the money into getting them elected. Most likely, it would cost MALDEF quite a bit less than even the saber-rattling they’ve done so far in filing a lawsuit… and it probably would have achieved their objective in a more harmonious and productive fashion.

    Voters can’t vote for people who aren’t on the ballot.

  2. Regis on Apr 16, 2013 at 6:52 am04/16/2013 6:52 am

    • 000

    As always, Navigio, thank you for your input. I agree and this story should be followed to the court trial or settlement, whatever it may be. My concern, is that you have teams of lawyers roving the state looking for ‘discrepancies’ in the makeup of the school board and then supplementing their lawyer-lifestyle with frivolous lawsuits that are often settled out of court.

    While they are advocating through legal force ‘fairness’, they are in fact harming the very people they ‘defend’. The money that is used to pay these shysters off, comes out of the school district, and the taxpayer! This means less money for the children attending these schools, because it went to pay off a bogus lawsuit.


    • navigio on Apr 16, 2013 at 9:03 am04/16/2013 9:03 am

      • 000

      Hi Regis. You bring up an excellent point. I agree with you that it is highly lamentable that in our society ‘equality’ is enforced primarily by legal threats. I wish it were not so, but perhaps it is merely part of the cost of living in such a striated and money-centric society. I do think the question of who bears the cost is a crucial one. Were I king of this state, I would break out lawsuit costs from the general fund. Those costs really should be borne by the state. One perennial irony related to accountability is that a community member may relax their own doggedness related to lawsuit-based enforcement because they understand it only takes money out of the classroom, and district administrators and lawyers will continue to get paid. Kind of defeats the purpose. We keep saying children are our priority and our future, but to be honest, we’re full of it. Perhaps if the state had to bear these costs independently they would move for some kind of legal reform (does the state not have responsibility for district employees?). But again, whether that would simply result in more lawbreaking, is a valid question as well. Perhaps this is one of those things where we assess the broader valid goal against the undesirable anecdotal costs to decide whether this is just a wage of sin.
      I actually think there are more fundamental problems with the changes made in the name of the voting rights act. Specifically, reducing the scope of representation can effectively remove any hope of real representation for some non-trivial (sized) group of people (you are forced to deal with the representative your region elects, or with no-one at all–in normal politics this problem is resolved by having two different types of representative bodies). A voice in public education may be one of the most personal ones we have in our democracy. Furthermore, with the advent of school choice and open enrollment and such, there may be zero relationship between a geographically elected representative and the actual school a child in that area attends, or vice versa. We seem to try to get around this by claiming that all board members represent all kids but then we force voting for only one board member. Can’t have it both ways. In other regional politics, the first thing a representative asks is your address so they know whether they should ignore you.

  3. navigio on Apr 15, 2013 at 4:17 pm04/15/2013 4:17 pm

    • 000

    I would like edsource to follow this story, regardless of the outcome, so that other districts can understand the financial and legal consequences of failing to implement geographic-based voting areas. One of the arguments for implementing this change has been the fear of legal costs (be it a court case or even out-of-court settlement).
    I also think its interesting that the district chose to decide it was not violating the act. From my understanding, simply having at-large voting has been enough to constitute a loss in court. I would like to understand how they reached this conclusion.
    I have also seen districts in which the switch to geographic regions resulted in a lowered likelihood of a minority being voted onto the board (ie in some people’s view, contrary to the spirit of the act–though legally, not necessarily so). It would be interesting to understand whether that situation would be enough to constitute a valid defense.

  4. Regis on Apr 15, 2013 at 4:04 pm04/15/2013 4:04 pm

    • 000

    Again, how incredibly stupid! The Mexican American Legal Defense Fund is filing a lawsuit against the school district for ‘denying the Latino community’ a “fair chance” seat on the school board.

    “You have a pattern over time where the preferences of Latino voters are different from non-Latino voters, significantly different,” said Thomas Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel. “The Latino population gets outvoted all the time.”

    Ya think? Outvoted? You’ve got to be kidding me! If they’re 32 percent of the population, then it’s up to THEM to vote, not the school district! If they aren’t voting, well, then, that’s their tough luck and deal with it. This is exactly what is killing me, what the heck is a “fair chance”.

    If the Latino community really, really cared, then they’d field a candidate, get the votes and have a seat. Doesn’t sound like it ever got considered, so now these ethnic-centric dirtbag lawyers, including that Mexican Lawyer group from San Francisco, kick up the dirt, file law suits and cry endlessly, while ‘settling out of court’ for millions of dollars. If that’s not TOTAL EXTORTION, then I don’t know what to call it.

    Maybe you should get your constituents to pick up the standard language of the country and participate in what we call ‘America’ instead of trying to make it ‘Mexico’. Your children might just benefit.


    • navigio on Apr 16, 2013 at 12:29 am04/16/2013 12:29 am

      • 000

      Not that you care, but a ‘fair chance’ in the context of the voting rights act is to not have geographic regions within the district that are significantly different, demographically speaking, from the demographics of the district as a whole, while having at-large elections. If that happens, the votes of a region that is primarily, say, hispanic, are diluted by being part of a district that is primarily something other than, say, hispanic. In other words, the idea is to reduce the scope of representation until concentrations of ethnicities are more or less isolated (and can thus speak as one, undiluted voice).
      The thing people generally miss is that, say, hispanics wont necessarily vote for hispanics (and that’s not the point of the act), but however they vote, they will at least be able to vote without being diluted into meaninglessness (which is the point).

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