Santa Barbara was recently sued by plaintiffs who accused the city of violating the California Voting Rights Act.

Dale Francisco

Dale Francisco

The law is a great example of how powerful interest groups have seized control of politics in California. While supposedly protecting the rights of minority voters, it in fact further empowers the Democratic Party and two of that party’s main allies: labor unions and attorneys.

The California Voting Rights Act was written by two attorneys: Robert Rubin, senior counsel at San Francisco’s Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and director of its California Voting Rights Institute, and Joaquin Avila, a Seattle University law professor and former president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF.

In 2001, the Voting Rights Act passed the Legislature on party lines: Every Democrat voted for it, and every Republican voted against it. Gov. Gray Davis signed it into law in 2002.

The law targets “at-large elections” — elections in which all of the voters in a jurisdiction vote for all of the members of that jurisdiction’s governing body (for example, up until very recently, Santa Barbara City Council elections, in which all city voters voted for all members of the City Council).

Most small cities and school districts in California have at-large elections, and thus are potential targets of lawsuits filed under the Voting Rights Act.

An interesting feature written into the law is that a prevailing plaintiff attorney is entitled to have all of his or her attorney fees and expenses paid by a losing defendant, but a prevailing defendant cannot recover any costs.

This creates a tremendous financial incentive for Voting Rights Act lawsuits. In 2009, Michael Blood of The Associated Press found that in the first seven years of the law’s existence, attorneys Rubin and Avila had earned roughly $4.3 million for their firms by suing school districts and cities for violating the Voting Rights Act.

Even if a defendant chooses to settle, the costs of such lawsuits can be crippling for small jurisdictions.

Many of Rubin and Avila’s original targets were Central Valley school districts. In 2010, then-Assemblyman Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, introduced AB 2330, which would have given school districts 30 days to respond before attorneys could file a lawsuit, thus allowing defendants potentially to avoid paying attorney fees.

Unfortunately, Arambula’s bill never made it out of committee. (Arambula, the son of migrant farmworkers, later left the Democratic Party and became an independent over his belief that labor unions had too much control over the party.)

The California Voting Rights Act makes it much easier for minorities to claim that they have been discriminated against. They need only demonstrate that there is “racially polarized voting” — meaning the candidates chosen by minorities (such as Hispanic voters) are different from those chosen by the majority.

Here’s an example of how “racially polarized voting” lowers the bar for proving racial discrimination. Cruzito Cruz, one of the plaintiffs in the recent lawsuit against Santa Barbara, has run for City Council three times. Cruz has never raised any money for campaigning, and so has never advertised, and thus is virtually unknown outside of his neighborhood.

In the 2013 election, he did best in his home precinct (105 votes) and the adjoining precinct (109 votes). His vote totals in other precincts were much lower.

Since virtually all of Cruz’s votes came from a minority neighborhood, there was, by definition, racially polarized voting. Under the Voting Rights Act, that is automatic proof of racial discrimination. Yet in his home precinct, Cruz came in eighth out of 10 candidates. So it seems unlikely that even with a new Hispanic majority district that Cruz could have been elected.

To avoid millions of dollars in costs, the City Council decided to settle the Voting Rights Act case before it went to trial. The city is now divided into six districts, two of which are “majority-minority” districts — ones in which Hispanics are a majority of the voting-age population.

This is the payoff for the Democratic Party, and the reason that the Voting Rights Act passed the Legislature strictly on party lines.

Let’s compare District 1 (the Milpas area), one of the two new majority-minority districts, and District 4 (Riviera, Upper East and eastern San Roque). The two districts are roughly equal in population. But because District 1 is majority Hispanic, and many of its residents are not citizens, there are only 8,231 citizens of voting age, whereas in District 4 there are 11,369.

The difference in registered voters is even greater: 5,735 in District 1, compared to 10,328 in District 4. Yet each district gets to elect one City Council member. This means that the voting power of each voter in District 1 is effectively twice as great as that of a voter in District 4.

In California, 59 percent of likely Hispanic voters are Democrats and 18 percent are Republicans. Over time one would expect the newly empowered Hispanic voting districts to elect more Democrats. Unfortunately, because most Democratic candidates in California are financed by the public-employee unions, this could mean even greater union control over local politics, which means continued, unsustainable increases in union wages and benefits — at the expense of taxpayers.

How can we fight back? We must reach out to voters, and make sure they understand that continued, corrupt union control of city politics is harmful to whites, blacks, Hispanics — to everyone. A bankrupt California will serve no one’s interests.

Here’s a simple rule when evaluating candidates in this fall’s City Council race: If a candidate has received financial support from the public-employee unions, especially over a period of years, don’t vote for that candidate. Vote for leaders who represent all the people.

Dale Francisco is a Santa Barbara city councilman.