A group of Latino citizens and residents of Visalia filed a lawsuit in the Tulare County Superior Court on December 19th, alleging that the city of Visalia has been and is violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) by maintaining a discriminatory “at-large” voting system for electing its city council members.
Visalia’s current off-year voting system allows all citizens to cast votes for each open seat on the council. As a result, Latinos, who make up 46 % of the population, have only been able to elect one person to the council in the history of the city.
The plaintiffs in this lawsuit are: Carlos Medina, a small businessman in Visalia; Dr. Robert Aguilar, Ed.D., superintendent of the Delano School District; Miguel Fierro, a disabled U.S. Army veteran; and Louis Montion, a former elected member of the Visalia Unified School District. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Marguerite Melo and John Sarsfield, of the Law Offices of Melo and Sarsfield, LLP, a civil rights law firm located in Visalia.
In 2012, the Visalia City Council created a special committee to make findings and recommendations whether the city should transition to district elections. The Election Process Task Force, as it was called, nearly unanimously recommended that district elections be adopted. It also expressed concern that the city’s present voting system was illegal and discriminatory, and that it prevented qualified Latino candidates from being elected.
The plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit to have the court force the city to cease holding at-large elections, and switch to elections by-district, as is done by most major governmental entities in the state. They are also seeking to move the election from off-years (odd-numbered years) to coincide with the elections for governor or president (even-numbered years).
Numerous cities and other jurisdictions throughout California are facing and have faced similar lawsuits to force recognition of minority voting rights under the CVRA. To date, no city has prevailed against CVRA claims brought against them. An increasing number of jurisdictions are switching to district elections to avoid costly election/civil rights lawsuits.