Santa Ana City Council members abruptly canceled their effort to re-draw district boundaries, instead relying on a lawsuit by a civil rights group that seeks to require the city to switch to district-based elections and re-draw existing lines.
The lawsuit, by the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles, alleges the city’s at-large election system disenfranchises Asian-American voters in the city’s west end, and violates the California Voting Rights Act. It was filed April 25 in Orange County Superior Court.
“Because of the racially polarized voting in Santa Ana elections, the City’s at-large method electoral system has prevented Asian American voters from electing their candidates of choice and influencing the outcome of City elections,” the lawsuit states.
The California Voting Rights Act, it adds, “was enacted to remedy precisely this kind of dilution and abridgment of rights of racial minority groups.”
The suit seeks a court order banning the city from holding any more at-large elections for City Council members, and requiring the city to adopt “fairly constituted districts that do not dilute or abridge Asian American voting strength or otherwise discriminate against Asian Americans.”
The city hasn’t responded to the lawsuit, according to court records. Its written response is due by May 30, according to the city and the civil rights group.
Councilman Sal Tinajero has supported a move to district elections and the re-drawing of the existing boundaries. He said he and the other pro-district council members hope the lawsuit will require the city to switch to district elections and re-draw the existing city council districts, which are known as “wards” in Santa Ana.
“I think what we’re hoping is that the judge will say go directly to ward elections and redraw the boundaries,” Tinajero said in a phone interview Saturday. “And we believe that even with an appeal, that the new boundaries will be upheld.”
Having the court involved in the boundary re-drawing process would be the best scenario, he said.
“Quite honestly, I think that’s the best thing,” Tinajero said. “That’ll assure that the numbers are correct and that the lines are drafted in a proper manner, with as little politics involved as possible.”
Two people close to City Hall said council members who support district elections are hoping for similar court decisions to what took place in the city of Palmdale.
In 2013, a judge ruled Palmdale’s at-large voting system violated the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the influence of black and Hispanic voters, and that the city could not hold its at-large City Council election in November 2013.
The Palmdale City Council appealed the decision and moved forward with the at-large election, although those election results were thrown out by the judge and an appeals court.
If the judge in the Santa Ana lawsuit decides the city must immediately move to district-based elections, Tinajero said he expects the ruling will be appealed.
“If the appeals happens, you’re looking at [the] November election for the council as being put on hold,” he said.
“In other words you’ll have the election, but…the people who win will not take a seat, until this court case is resolved, which could potentially leave this [current] council in there between eight and 16 months, to continue to sit there. And there’s the possibility that if…the ruling of the lower court is upheld then” the city would have to do another election under district-based voting.
Santa Ana City Councilman David Benavides, who supports district elections, said the chances don’t look good for getting the lines redrawn in time for this November’s election.
“It doesn’t look promising,” Benavides said in a May 15 text message, after the council’s most recent discussion of the issue. “It looks like we will just have to wait and see what the Court decides as a result of the [voting rights] lawsuit.”
Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who voted against the district elections effort, pointed to the city’s upside-down financial position and said Santa Ana doesn’t have the money to defend against the suit.
“The reality is that we don’t have the funds to fight this lawsuit. It can cost us millions,” Martinez said via text message.
It’s unclear whether the City Council still plans to ask voters in November to switch the city to district elections, or if that effort is on hold until the court case moves further in the process. A city spokesman didn’t have an answer last week.
Tinajero said the majority of council members who support district elections continue to want to put the measure before voters in November.
Santa Ana currently splits the city into six districts, or “wards.” City Council candidates run against other candidates who live in the same ward, but voters across the city vote for all council seats.
Four of the seven City Council members have tried to have the city switch to district elections in time for the November election and to re-draw the district boundaries. In district elections, only voters who live in a district vote for candidates in that district. The pro-districting members are Benavides, Jose Solorio, Sal Tinajero, and Vicente Sarmiento.
They’ve argued it would help level the playing field for candidates who don’t have a lot of campaign money, and that the city’s at-large system disenfranchises Vietnamese-American voters on the city’s west side, which includes part of Little Saigon.
Opponents of district elections have said the effort is a ruse by Solorio to redraw the lines to benefit City Council candidates he supports in November. They also say Solorio is trying to make it more difficult for candidates backed by the city police officers’ union to win.
Asked about the allegations in a March interview, Solorio said he hasn’t endorsed any candidates, and that he’s motivated by “doing right by the California Voting Rights Act, and doing right by Asian American [voters] in our community.”
Solorio previously was a key vote against moving toward district elections, during a January 2017 council meeting. Just over a year later, he switched to taking actions in support of district elections in February and March, attributing his changed position to an internal city analysis of the voting rights law.
People who closely follow Santa Ana politics say two groups of candidates are being sought by rival factions with significant campaign funds: the police union and Solorio.
The police union had significantly more campaign money in the bank – nearly $400,000 – than any other Santa Ana campaign committee, as of the latest public reports.
The police union started the 2018 election year with 76 percent of all Santa Ana campaign money – or $397,000 out of $519,000 – according to the reports. Solorio reported about $60,000 in available campaign money.
Santa Ana’s residents are 78 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, and 9 percent White non-Hispanic, according to the latest U.S. Census data.
“Here, although Asian Americans in Santa Ana make up approximately 11% of the population and 17.2% of the citizen voting age population, no Asian American serves on Santa Ana’s City Council,” the lawsuit states.
“This overall absence of any Asian American representatives on the City Council, even though prior Asian American candidates were the preferred candidate of Asian American voters, reveals the Asian American community’s lack of meaningful access to the political process in Santa Ana.
“The [California Voting Rights Act] specifically was enacted to remedy this wrong – a racial minority group that is effectively shut out from chosen representation.”
In comparison, Palmdale’s demographics were 54 percent Latino and nearly 15 percent black at the time of that suit, according to one of the plaintiff’s attorneys in the case.
It’s unclear when a ruling could come in the Santa Ana case.
The first court hearing in the voting rights lawsuit is scheduled for July 30, two weeks into the City Council candidate nomination period for the November election.
The candidate nomination period runs from July 16 through Aug. 10. And county elections officials, who administer Santa Ana’s election, plan to start mailing sample ballots to voters in September.
A narrow four-person majority on the Santa Ana council started the redistricting process last month, with city officials later hiring a demographics consultant and scheduling five public hearings to create new proposed maps.
A final City Council vote to adopt a new map was scheduled for June 5, and changing the maps would require five council members’ support under the city charter.
But only two of the four supportive council members showed up for the second hearing, and just three of the four came to the third hearing. After the May 15 City Council closed session, officials announced the redistricting process was suspended due to a lack of supportive council members and the pending lawsuit.
The city’s redistricting consultant, Paul Mitchell of Redistricting Partners, “will stay on contract, if needed, as part of the litigation,” city spokesman Jorge Garcia said in a text message.
Superior Court Judge Derek W. Hunt, who was appointed to the bench in 1997 by then-Gov. Pete Wilson, is presiding over the district elections lawsuit. Online court records are available by clicking here and entering the case number, 30-2018-00988425-CU-CR-CJC.
The group suing Santa Ana, Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles, is based in Los Angeles and has an Orange County office in Santa Ana. The group says it’s “the nation’s largest legal and civil rights organization for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at [email protected].