A national civil rights organization has accused Merced of violating the California Voting Rights Act and is threatening to sue the city after Latino voters complained the city's election system prevented them from electing candidates of their choice.
In a letter to Mayor Stan Thurston, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund warned that the city could face litigation if a “satisfactory response” is not received by May 1. The organization claims it received numerous complaints from Latino voters that sparked an investigation of the city’s demographic and electoral information.
Although Latinos make up more than 49 percent of Merced's population, none of the six City Council members are Latino and there hasn't been a Latino on the council in nearly a decade, according to MALDEF. The organization blamed this trend on Merced's at-large election system, which means council members are elected to represent the entire city as opposed to separate districts.
The organization said the city needs to implement a by-district election system.
"To assure fair and democratic elections in Merced, the city must shift to single-member districts, which have proven to ensure that all communities have their views represented," said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel, in a news release. "This in turn also secures better and more effective governance for all city residents."
Representatives from MALDEF could not be reached for comment Friday.
Turlock is among many cities and school districts looking at changing from at-large elections. Later this year, the council could consider putting a detailed plan before voters in November, according to City Manager Roy Wasden.
Ceres in July 2013 moved forward with district elections after a Latino group said the city's at-large elections do not provide enough representation for minorities, violate the law and expose the city to litigation. Modesto switched to electing council members by district rather than citywide in 2008.
Thurston confirmed he received the MALDEF letter Friday, but said he could not discuss the issue because the organization threatened to sue. "We've been advised to delay speaking about aspects of this until we have a conference with the city attorney," Thurston said, adding that the city would respond to the group by May 1.
City Manager John Bramble said the letter from MALDEF came as no surprise since the group has contacted other cities in the Central Valley about voting issues.
"They've been doing this up and down the Valley for a while, so it was probably just a matter of time before they came to us,” Bramble said. City staff will evaluate the costs and benefits of switching to a by-district election system, he said. "We'll talk about it. There's a lot of a data that has to be looked at."
In last year's City Council election, UC Merced lecturer Chris Ramirez was the only Latino candidate who ran. Ramirez said he supports diversity, but doesn’t think having elections for each district would have made a difference in the outcome.
"I don't think it would have determined my victory or nonvictory in the race," said Ramirez, who works in the university’s Merritt writing program. “I think the outcome would have been the same as what happened last year.”
Ramirez said he would support the idea of breaking Merced into districts if it helps residents feel more represented. "If districting would allow an opportunity for more diversity, then I think that might be a more viable solution."
Livingston Mayor Rodrigo Espinoza is the only Latino mayor in Merced County, and said his ethnicity has helped him understand and relate to the community.
"I'm fluent in Spanish and was born in Mexico, and people feel like they can address their issues more easily,” the mayor said. “The Hispanic population doesn't seem to have their voice heard when they go to a (Merced) City Council meeting. I think they would feel more comfortable if they had a representative on the council."
It's unclear if a by-district election system would cost the city more money, said Merced County Registrar of Voters Barbara Levey. Election costs are based on voter registration, which determines the number of polling locations and ballots that must be printed.
All six cities in the county have an at-large election system, Levey confirmed, though some school districts recently switched to the by-district method.
Although she believes the city of Merced has good intentions, longtime Latino advocate Irene De La Cruz said dividing the city into districts allows people to have their voices heard. "I think it provides a voice and it's an opportunity for more representation,” she said.
A political science expert agrees, saying a community's voting system should mirror the population.
"It sounds like it's a disadvantage to have an at-large system because it's harder to represent the Hispanic population,” said April Hejka-Ekins, professor emeritus in the political science and public administration department of California State University, Stanislaus. "It (by-district system) would be a better system for promoting democracy in terms of participation of everyone in the community."
Thurston said he can discuss the issue in more detail after the April 21 City Council meeting.
"By then we will have had a session with the city attorney," the mayor said, "and be able to discuss the pros and cons and the cost of doing it."
Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.