After threat of lawsuit, Merced to look at its at-large election system

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comApril 15, 2014 

The Merced City Council plans to discuss its options Wednesday night after a threatened lawsuit with the potential to change how the governing body looks.

The Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund warned in a letter early this month that the city could face litigation without a “satisfactory response” by May 1. The City Council has scheduled a closed-session meeting with the city attorney for legal advice.

MALDEF says complaints from Latino voters sparked an investigation of the city’s demographic and electoral information.

The civil rights organization blames what it sees as a lack of Latino representation in government on Merced’s at-large election system, which means council members are elected to represent the entire city as opposed to separate districts.

Jessica L. Trounstine, a political scientist at UC Merced, said lawsuits like the one potentially facing the city have had varying levels of success. Some cities have felt pressured to change to districts when activist groups can show polarized voting, differences in voting preferences between Latinos and whites and a lack of Latino representatives in a governing body.

“The legal environment has certainly encouraged cities to change,” she said.

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 member in nearly a decade, according to the civil rights organization.

Trounstine said it’s difficult to say whether a shift to district elections would change how Merced’s council looks, but “the short version is yes. I believe it has the potential to significantly change who is elected to the City Council and how different areas of the city are represented,” she said.

Whether that would be reflected as a “sweeping” change in how the city operates is harder to say, she said.

Merced is far from the only California city rethinking the election process. Later this year, the Turlock City Council could consider putting a detailed plan before voters, City Manager Roy Wasden has said.

In July 2013, Ceres 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.

Trounstine, who specializes in elections, said a change to districting tends to bring greater diversity to a city council. In Merced, she said, that would likely mean a higher frequency of people of Latino and Hmong descent winning elections.

In her research, Troustine said, she finds that the change to districts also increases the attention paid to many areas of a city. In a system with districts, each council member represents a specific geographic area of the city.

An aspect that affects Latino representation, she said, is low voter turnout. Even accounting for education level and income, she said, Latinos turn out in lower numbers across the nation.

Merced City Council members were instructed by the city attorney to refrain from discussing the issue until after tonight’s session, according to Councilman Mike Murphy.

The 5:30 p.m. meeting between the council and its legal staff at City Hall, 678 W. 18th St., is not open to the public. Under public meeting rules, the council can meet in closed session to discuss potential litigation, but must report on any votes or action taken.

 

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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