The ACLU filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the city of Fullerton, alleging — much as the civil rights organization did in litigation against Anaheim a couple of years ago — that the way voters pick their representatives discriminates against minorities, particularly those of Asian descent.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit, filed in Orange County Superior Court, has the same goal as the Anaheim lawsuit.
It is also similar to a suit alleging Fullerton’s elections discriminate against Latinos, said attorney Robert Rubin, who is working with the ACLU on its latest legal action.
The lawsuit filed against Anaheim was resolved early last year and led to a change in the way City Council members are elected by district instead of at-large.
Rubin said it was a “fair statement” to say today’s suit is like the one against Anaheim. “How it actually goes forward, of course, depends in large part how the jurisdiction responds,” he said.
The issue is “racially polarized voting in the context of at-large elections (and how) it will lock out the minority community in the winner-take- all at-large system,” Rubin said.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit is Jonathan Paik, a Fullerton resident of Asian descent.
“We are asking the city of Fullerton to implement elections that make sure that all communities, including the Asian-American community, have an opportunity to elect candidates of their choice and that the city council is responsive to the needs of all Fullerton residents,” said ACLU attorney Belinda Escobosa-Helzer. “No one wins when some residents are shut out of government.”
The lawsuit alleges the city is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.
Fullerton voters cast ballots for every seat on the City Council in the at-large system, which the ACLU alleges leaves some representatives “unaccountable” to some communities they would seem to represent.
The ACLU is aiming to have Fullerton voters pick council members by district and require the representative to live in that district.
One in four eligible voters in the city are of Asian descent, yet there are no Fullerton council members of Asian heritage, according to the ACLU.
“Asian American voters long to participate in Fullerton’s city government, but the current at-large system prevents that by diluting our power at the ballot box,” Paik said.
Neither Fullerton’s public information officer nor Mayor Greg Sebourn responded to requests for comment.
In January 2014, the Anaheim City Council voted to settle its lawsuit with the ACLU, which paved the way for a change in that city’s elections from an at-large system to a district one. The organization alleged the at-large system discriminated against Latinos.
In November, Anaheim voters changed the city’s charter to have district- by-district elections for the council. Measure L was approved by a 30,873-to- 13,981 margin.
The size of the council was also increased from four plus the mayor to six plus the mayor.
The first district-by-district election will be next year in Anaheim.
The other state voting rights lawsuit pending against Fullerton, alleging discrimination against Latinos, is scheduled to go on trial in October, said attorney Kevin Shenkman.
“We did a racially polarized voting study, too, and we found the same thing,” Shenkman told City News Service. “Ethnicities vote differently and the minorities in Fullerton usually lose — both Asians and Latinos.”
According to the 2010 census, Fullerton is 22.8 percent Asian, 34.4 percent Latino, 2.3 percent black “and the rest is almost entirely white,” Shenkman said.
Voters of Latino descent are concentrated on the city’s southside, Shenkman said, while Asian voters are on the northwest side.
The aim of the lawsuit isn’t to get someone of Asian or Latino descent elected to the City Council, Shenkman said, but rather to give minorities more opportunity to elect someone they feel best represents their interests.
— City News Service