Voting districts accused of siring racial inequality

A committee of San Mateo County residents has its work cut out for it next month as it reconsiders the boundaries of the county’s five supervisorial districts with an eye toward making countywide elections more equitable.

Policy experts say the current districts split up Asian and Latino populations in a way that dilutes their voting power. That doesn’t just result in consistent white leadership of a county with a nonwhite majority. It also leaves San Mateo County vulnerable to federal lawsuits for Voting Rights Act violations.

County voters tried to tackle the problem last fall by passing a ballot measure shifting the county from at-large supervisorial elections — in which the whole county elects each supervisor — to a pure district system, in which only the residents of a district elect their leaders. The measure appeared in response to a lawsuit filed in 2011, alleging that San Mateo County had effectively prohibited Asians and Latinos from ever serving in government, in violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

The county settled that suit last month and agreed to convene an advisory committee starting June 6 to discuss the area’s demographics, geography, and political muscle of various voting populations. Lawyer Robert Rubin, who represented the six plaintiffs in that suit, has vowed to sue again if district boundaries are not modified in a manner that assures equal representation for minority groups.

University of Washington associate professor Matt Barreto, who provided an expert declaration in the lawsuit, believes that switching to a district system isn’t enough to solve San Mateo County’s voter inequities. He argued that racial polarity is embedded in the current district boundaries.

Last year, Barreto and a team of demographers took data from previous statewide elections and re-aggregated it by district in San Mateo County, to see if the Latino and Asian candidates would have carried those areas.

With the current district boundaries they’d all lose, he said. State Controller John Chiang would have fallen below the 50 percent mark in San Mateo County’s fifth district, which is considered an Asian-oriented precinct. Similarly, Deborah Ortiz would have lost the Latino-oriented precinct in District 4 in her bid for secretary of state.

A few easy tweaks could solve that problem, Barreto said. “District 5, which contains most of Daly City, is close to being an Asian district,” he said, explaining that county officials need only move the line a hair. They could also turn District 4 into a Latino bloc by incorporating more of East Palo Alto and the city of San Mateo. Such adjustments would help other issues beyond racial representation, he said.

“It’s not like you’re just trying to maximize the Latino population,” Barreto pointed out, explaining that Latinos in that area also share an interest in issues that affect working-class people.

County counsel John Beiers agrees that voter districts should serve such “communities of interest,” though he doesn’t see a problem with the current boundaries. District 3, which includes Half Moon Bay and much of coastal San Mateo County, will represent the agricultural population, whereas other areas might be more concerned with the biotech industry. He adds that San Mateo County has always hewn to state law when drawing district lines, and “race is not listed” as one of the criteria.

“I’ve heard very little criticism outside the context of litigation,” Beiers said in an interview. But the results might speak for themselves: In the past two decades, San Mateo County has had one Latino and no Asian supervisors. Its current board is all white.

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