Compton Latino Residents Sue for Elections Overhaul

A battle between black and brown voters is brewing in Southern California.

By Julianne Hing Jan 18, 2011

In Compton, California, three Latinas have sued the city government, charging that its elections have violated the California Voting Rights Act, and the city’s Latino residents’ civil rights along with it.

The LA Times reports that things are changing in a town with a political legacy tied to black political movements. Latinos are more than 60 percent of the population and 43 percent of eligible voters, but have zero representation on the four-person city council. Those positions, as well as the town’s mayoral seat, are all held by black residents. Many Latinos have run for city council positions in recent years, some repeatedly, but none have ever won, according to NPR. That’s possible because the city uses at-large elections instead of district elections where certain neighborhoods can pull their local political power to elect officials.

"If you can show that along racial lines people are voting a particular ways and that’s consistent, that’s the place where you need some remedy," Lisa Garcia Bedolla, a University of California, Berkeley professor, told NPR. "So that folks who are continually losing have the ability to be represented." The plaintiffs want a judge to stop upcoming elections at least until the lawsuit is resolved.

But some of Compton’s black residents are not interested in re-examining elections. Neighboring towns like Maywood and Bell Gardens have undergone deep demographic shifts in recent years too, and their city councils reflect the majority-Latino populations. The LA Times reports:

"No one’s going over there and complaining that there’s no African Americans on their council," said Royce Esters, 73, an African American businessman and Compton resident since 1956, when the city was predominantly white and there were no blacks at City Hall. "African Americans are not just going to give [Latinos] the seats. They’ve got to go out and campaign, and come out to vote. That’s how they might get in. You have to win your seat."

And legal arguments and technicalities aside, this is the weakest part of Latino residents’ complaints. Only 7 percent of the Compton’s eligible voters actually vote. And of Compton’s Latino population, a little more than half of voting-age residents are ineligible to vote because they’re not citizens.

Plaintiffs argue though that the structure of elections is what discourages people from heading out to the polls at all, and a shift to district elections will actually help increase civic engagement. Compton’s city attorney said that to change the city charter-mandated election systems, residents would need to approve the overhaul in, what else, an election.