PALM DESERT — Two Palm Desert Latinas, both registered voters, filed a complaint Wednesday against the city of Palm Desert for its alleged violation of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
The two women are Lorraine Salas and Karina Quintanilla. The complaint was filed in Superior Court of California, County of Riverside.
The formal complaint comes nearly two years after Palm Desert was put on notice that it was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act because of its at-large election system.
Malibu-based Attorney Kevin I. Shenkman sent the certified letter on Sept. 15, 2017. He sent the letter on behalf of his client Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and its members living in Palm Desert.
Voting within Palm Desert is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution, which violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, Shenkman alleged in his letter.
Shenkman urged Palm Desert to voluntarily change its at-large system of electing member of the City Council . Otherwise, he wrote, “We will be forced to seek judicial relief.” Shenkman asked to be advised no later than Nov. 3, 2017 as to whether Palm Desert would like to discuss a “voluntary change” to its current at-large system.
Similar letters were sent to Cathedral City, Indio, and Palm Springs. Each of those cities moved swiftly to voluntarily move to district-based elections rather than spend money on a costly lawsuit none could win.
The city of Palm Desert took no action.
“The City has not responded to the Shenkman letter,” City Clerk Rachelle Klassen told Uken Report last week. “Legal review generated by the Shenkman letter is protected by the attorney-client privilege.”
Councilmember Jan Harnik told Uken Report the city has been focused on other issues such as height limits.
“We have the letter and it’s being held,” Harnik told Uken Report. “We were waiting to see how it all shakes out in other cities.”
The city will now likely face a costly legal battle.
On Wednesday, Shenkman did what he promised. On behalf of his clients, he is seeking judicial relief. They want the city to stop its at-large elections and move to district-based elections.”
“Other jurisdictions in that same area — Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Indio — have done the right thing,” Shenkman told Uken Report. “The lone standout is Palm Desert. At some point we thought Palm Desert would change its mind. Honestly, I don’t know why it didn’t. It’s time to do something about it.”
The last nine elections are illustrative of how the city of Palm Desert has violated the California Voting Rights Act, Shenkman argues. Not a single Latino candidate competed in any one of the respective Council contests. From 2000 to 2016, 24 members were elected to the Palm Desert City Council from a pool of 52 candidates, yet not one of those candidates was Latino.
You may read Shenkman’s original five-page letter in its entirety by clicking here.
In the newly filed complaint, Shenkman argues that the effects of the city of Palm Desert’s at-large method of election are apparent and compelling. Despite a Latino population of 25.8 percent in the city of Palm Desert in 2015 (and likely higher today), Latinos and ballot choices preferred by the Latino electorate have consistently been defeated in Palm Desert., Shenkman writes.
Rather, in Palm Desert’s recent elections — including the most recent in 2018 — Latino candidates and ballot choices, preferred by the Latino electorate, were all defeated by the bloc voting of the non-Latino electorate.
“All of this reveals a lack of access for Latinos to the political process,” the complaint states.
The current City Council is comprised of four Caucasian women and one Caucasian male. Incumbent Harnik and Incumbent Sabby Jonathan both sought reelection in November 2018 and won.
You may read the complaint in its entirety here.
Most California cities with City Councils elected at-large, upon receipt of a Voting Rights Act violation notice, have chosen to voluntarily switch to districts. A few cities have chosen to fight this request. In one of the significant cases, the city of Palmdale, in 2012, lost and was ordered to switch to district elections. Palmdale paid more than $4.5 million in legal fees to plaintiff and defense counsel and had their districts drawn not by their City Council after input from their residents, but by plaintiff’s counsel. Recent changes in the law make it even more difficult to win these lawsuits than it was in 2012.
Palm Springs Unified School Board and College of the Desert Board of Trusteeshave also moved to district elections.
You may read the entire complaint here.
- Complaint: Shutterstock