Kern County diluted the voting power of Latinos when it drew district lines for the Board of Supervisors in 2011, according to a case that goes to trial in a federal court in Fresno today.
Attorneys with Mexican-American Legal Defense And Educational Fund (MALDEF), who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Kern County Latinos, say redistricting efforts in 2011violated federal voting laws that protect minority voting rights. Dolores Huerta, the iconic labor leader who co-founded the United Farmworkers Union, will provide testimony to help make the case that Kern County’s boundaries should honor and preserve the unique political needs of farmworkers from northern Kern County to Arvin.
The county claims the 2011 process was legal and say plaintiffs are using this suit as a way to gain more political capital before the next round of redistricting in 2021.
“[MALDEF] is saying, ‘They gerrymandered then, we’re going to gerrymander now, and we’re going to get a court to bless it,’”Kern County Counsel Mark Nations said.
The last time borders for the Board of Supervisors were drawn in 2001, Latinos represented 38 percent of the population of Kern County. In 2011, they represented 49 percent of the county population, yet Latinos have struggled to claim more than one of the five seats on the board.
“Latinos make up half of the population in Kern County and yet we only have 20 percent of the representatives,” said CSU Bakersfield Philosophy Professor Gerald Cantu. “Latinos are definitely not getting representation.”
Latinos in the county tend to have lower incomes, less education and poorer access to healthcare than the rest of the population. This hurts their ability to participate in the political process. Cantu says addressing these inequalities is not a priority for the board leadership.
Currently, Leticia Perez is the only Latino supervisor on the board, and she is also the only representative who is not a white man. She represents District 5, which includes the heavily Latino communities of Arvin and Lamont.
According to 2010 Census data, other Latinos in Kern County are concentrated in the communities of north Kern County, such as Delano (72-percent Latino), Shafter (80 percent), McFarland (92 percent) and Wasco (77 percent). But those heavily agricultural and Latino communities are split in two by district borders, diluting their voting power. That means Wasco voters are grouped in with the white, affluent voters of Bakersfield’s west side in District 4, represented by David Couch. And voters in Delano, Shafter and McFarland are represented by Mick Gleason in District 1, along with voters in the mountain and Mojave communities of Ridgecrest (77-percent white), Lake Isabella (89 percent) and Kernville (90 percent).
At the time the lines were drawn in 2011, Eastern Kern residents were very vocal about ensuring the area had two districts, as they historically have. All of the map options presented to the board preserved that division.
“You can’t say the community of Ridgecrest has the same interests and economic drivers as Tehachapi,” Nations said. “They’re in two very different districts.”
However, those communities are sparsely populated, and in order for them to have enough voters, their districts reach far west. District 2, represented by Zack Scrivener, stretches from Boron to Highway 99. And District 1 stretches from Ridgecrest to all the way past Highway 43.
It is this western border that “cracks” the northern Latino community in two, MALDEF claims. Those communities have been advocating for a seat that joins them together since at least 1991, says Tanya Pellegrini, a staff attorney at MALDEF.
“They’ve been saying, ‘We’re really similar, we should all be in the same district,’” she said.
This case will in large part hinge on the statistics and demographics available in 2011. The Voting Rights Act takes into account several different factors when deciding whether a minority community’s voting power is being diluted. When drawing district lines, the court considers the entire population—including minors and undocumented immigrants who are ineligible to vote. But the court also looks at the population of eligible voters and voting patterns to decide whether a group votes cohesively, Pellegrini says.
MALDEF’s case takes all those factors into consideration and hope to prove that Kern County is racially polarized. Their evidence? They say statistics indicate Latino candidates tend to be supported by Latino voters, but white voters don’t support Latino candidates. Morgan Kousser,a history professor at Caltech whose research focuses on the Voting Rights Act, conducted an analysis of 22 racially contested elections in Kern County from 2004 to 2014. He will testify that Latino political candidates are stymied by non-Latino voters.
Not only do Latino candidates not win majority-white districts, but they often don’t even make the runoff, Pellegrini says. She points to the candidacy of Sam Ramirez, the mayor of Delano and city councilman who ran for a seat in District 1 in 2012. She says he enjoyed broad support in Wasco, Shafter and Delano, but during the primary he placed fourth behind three white men: Gleason, Roy Ashburn and Daures Stephens.
One recent vote by the Kern County Board of Supervisors throws the lack of Latino representation into stark relief: the boardvoted to oppose SB 54. That is better known as “Sanctuary State” bill, which limits local law enforcement’s ability to collaborate with federal immigration officials to violent offenders.
“That’s a slap in the face of the Latino of the community, which is half of the population of Kern County,” Cantu said.
Latinos largely support sanctuary bills, because it makes it easier for undocumented immigrants to come forward to report crime. Perez cast the lone dissenting vote.
MALDEF’s legal team will also be arguing that Latino communities are connected together not just by race, but by culture, religion, the way they shop, their history and the issues they face, including infrastructure and environmental concerns.
The Voting Rights Act takes into account a history of discrimination against minority groups.
MALDEF will bring in Dr. Albert Camarillo,a professor at Stanford who specializes in Mexican-American history, to testify about the long history of racial discrimination up to the present day that Latinos have faced in Kern County and California. In Kern County, Richland School District at one point refused to admit Latinos. And schools in Shafter and Buttonwillow used corporal punishment to discipline students for speaking Spanish. Latinos in California were once barred from voting with poll tests that required them to read the California Constitution in English. Latinos faced voter intimidation in Los Angeles County and Orange Countyas recently as 1988.
MALDEF’s experts will also argue about the issues facing Latinos in contemporary Kern County, such as low graduation rates and environmental pollution in their communities.
While giving eastern Kern County two seats has been local tradition, MALDEF says it doesn’t legally override the obligation—enshrined in theVoting Rights Act of 1965—to give the Latino community a chance at proportional representation.
The organization has drafted two alternative maps that groups the Latino communities of North Kern together. The maps are suggestions meant to show that it is possible to create majority-Latino districts that would give them at shot at proportional representation on the Board. Both of these drafts combine the East Kern County into one district, so that the communities of the Mojave and the mountains are grouped together.
One of the alternative Maps combines Arvin with those northern agricultural communities, and then links Lamont with East Bakersfield. Another alternative map groups those northern agricultural communities with East Bakersfield. MALDEF makes the argument that farming communities both north and south of Bakersfield have a strong cultural connection to the Latinos of East Bakersfield. Huerta will provide testimony meant to highlight the economic and labor patterns that connect Arvin to cities in northern Kern County. She will discuss how farmworkers “follow the crops” throughout the county, depending on the season.
However, Nations says that the statistics available in 2011 will show that there weren’t enough voters to create a second majority-minority district as MALDEF contends. He says the attempts at offering up alternative districts proves his point; trying to create a district that includes cities north of Bakersfield, like Wasco and Delano, with cities south of Bakersfield, like Arvin, is gerrymandering.
He says that there might now be a larger Latino population in Northern Kern that could get its own district based on contemporary statistics, but he says that wasn’t true in 2011. He says when redistricting happens in 2021 that might be a possibility.
He says the Latino communities aren’t the only ones unhappy with the way the district lines were drawn. Oildale was also split into two districts.
“They didn’t get what they wanted either,” he said. “What we need is seven supervisors.”
Nations says none of the maps presented to the board would create a second majority-minority district, “There had been a talk, but no one brought forward a map.”
However, MALDEF says that it will present evidence that Allan Krauter, Senior Administrative Analyst in the Kern County Administrative Office, created such a map based on discussions with the Latino community. It wasn’t a part of the initial presentation he made to the board, so the community lobbied him to present it at the next meeting, which he did. He also presented one more new map that the board ratified, and which represents the county today.
According to a trial brief, community members asked the board to delay their vote until they could have more time to consider the implications of the lines. They were particularly concerned that none of the maps had data about the number of Latinos who were citizens eligible to vote—crucial data for the Voting Rights Act. That data will be presented at trial.
Nations said he doesn’t understand why MALDEF is filing this suit so many years after redistricting.
“Even if we redraw them now by court order, they’re going to be redrawn two years from now,” Nations said.
“The plaintiff felt forced to get the county to hear their concerns,” Pellegrini says. “They could have avoided this, but this lawsuit was the only recourse.”