Ken McElroy Online

Voting Rights and Wrongs

Ken McElroy
September 4, 2001

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits discrimination based on race in voting, and also prohibits actions such as literacy tests or poll taxes designed to prevent individuals of a particular race from voting. It's also illegal to gerrymander voting districts in order to dilute the vote of a minority group so that their candidates of choice are effectively prohibited from winning elections.

The federal Department of Justice under Clinton appointee Bill Lan Lee filed a lawsuit in April 2000 against the city of Santa Paula, a small town of about 28,000 residents in Southern California, claiming violations of the Act. The city and the Justice Department agreed to a settlement last week, with the city agreeing to allow voters to decide the method of electing the city council, whether by an at-large system or by a district system.

At the time of his nomination, the Republicans in the Senate blocked the nomination of Lee to head the civil rights division at the Department of Justice. Bill Clinton then installed Lee as a recess appointment to the post.The lawsuit filed against Santa Paula illustrates very well why the Republicans were correct to reject Lee's nomination, and how the Democrats' anti-constitutional policy goals of race-based quotas, preferences and set-asides led to a lawsuit with no merit that threatened to bankrupt a small town.

The basic premise behind the Voting Rights Act is that the government may not purposely rig the system to favor one ethnic group over another. To enforce this law, the Justice Department insisted that the city of Santa Paula must rig the system to favor one ethnic group over another. The Justice Department remedy involved replacing the city's "at-large" elections with five council districts. Two of the districts were to be set up to ensure Latino majorities.

This in a city where the group to be favored is not a minority, but in fact comprises just over 70% of the total population, where 52% of the registered voters are Latino, and two of the present city council members are Latino.

One presumption behind the Justice Department suit is that Latino citizens must be represented by Latino city council members. This idea is on its face racist. It in effect says, "They all think alike."

Don't the Latino council members take the views of any non-Latino citizens into consideration when they make policy? The lawyers at the Department of Justice must think not. During his eight years in office, former President Clinton enjoyed unprecedented support from black Americans, who believed he did a good job representing their interests. This shouldn't be possible if black voters can only be represented by black politicians, and Latino voters can only be represented by Latinos, and white voters can only be represented by whites. The presumption that "they all think alike" or that "they" will all vote alike, whoever "they" are, should be rejected.

In fact, one of the current white councilmen in Santa Paula had support from Latino community leaders in the last election. So three out of five council members were elected with Latino support. This doesn't quite sound like 1950 Selma, Alabama. What exactly was the problem the Justice Department was trying to solve?

According to Councilwoman Laura Flores Espinoza, who supported the Justice Department position, the stipulation of facts in the settlement agreement states, "…since 1988, the Latino candidates preferred by Hispanic voters would have won every single council election if only Hispanics voted."

The Voting Rights Act doesn't require the government to forcibly drag voters to the polls. The Act only requires that voters not be prevented from voting based on their race. So the issue is not whether Hispanics in Santa Paula voted, but whether they were prevented from voting because they are Hispanic. No evidence exists to suggest that this was the case.

Thus, no Voting Rights Act violation exists. If someone chooses not to vote of his own free will, that is his right as an American. There is no evidence in Santa Paula that people were denied access to the polls, or that the existing system was designed with any intent to discriminate against Latinos.

The federal government has no business picking winners and losers in local city council elections based on race. The federal government has no business giving a small town a choice between bankruptcy and a de facto quota system, because some citizens freely choose not to vote.

This was a case that was counter to the letter and the spirit of the law and the Constitution, and it should never have been filed.

The best way to ensure that this type of travesty of justice doesn't happen again is to keep people who believe in government sanctioned set-asides, quotas, and preferences out of office. People of every race who believe in equality under the law should vote for that.