November elections are just around the corner in many California cities. In the desert town of Palmdale north of Los Angeles, local elections were called off last month – cancelled by a Superior Court judge who says the city’s electoral process is unfair to minority voters.
Palmdale appealed, and now the election is back on. But results could be put on hold by an appeals court. And that’s got candidates like Richard Loa facing an uncertain future.
Loa, an attorney, and his family settled in Palmdale about 20 years ago, attracted by the clean air, quiet neighborhoods and cheap real estate.
“Our city is a wonderful place to live,” said Loa.
Loa runs his law practice out of a well-manicured bungalow along Palmdale’s busiest main drag.
“We have worked really hard in Palmdale to present the best image for our city, and now we have this,” Loa said. “And I’m not sure that this really reflects positively on our city, and that saddens me.”
“This” is last month’s cancellation of Palmdale’s November 5 election because the city was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. Superior Court Judge Mark Mooney said Palmdale’s “at-large” elections put minority candidates and voters at a disadvantage. All candidates now run for election across the entire city, vs. district-style elections where candidates run in defined geographic areas.
The judge essentially put a moratorium on all future local elections until a new system is in place, which would likely mean a shift to district-style elections.
Palmdale’s successful appeal came with one big caveat.
“We will hold the election, secure the ballots, process those ballots, deliver those results to the city and they are not to certify those results,” explained Efrain Escobedo of the L.A. County Registrar’s office.
“In other words, they will not be seating new council members.”
Final results could be tied up for weeks or even tossed out if the Superior Court ruling stands. That’s left the handful of candidates running for city council and the mayor’s office deeply frustrated -- including the mayor himself, Jim Ledford. Ledford is running for re-election.
“It creates confusion, our residents are confused,” said Ledford during an interview at his City Hall office. “We’re spending money to run our election, but what if it’s called off? Who’s gonna make me whole? Who’s gonna make our city whole?”
Palmdale vows to fend off the challenge in court. The city argues that Latinos and African-Americans can have a lot of influence at the ballot box because they make up the majority of Palmdale’s registered voters. And unlike in some cities, says Ledford, their presence is felt across the city.
“When you look at a city like Palmdale, one of the most integrated cities in America, we don’t have enclaves like the city of L.A.,” Ledford said.
Attorney Rex Parris represents Palmdale residents in the voting rights dispute.
“Every single one of these cases has resulted in districting or a different form of voting,” said Parris. Other California cities facing similar challenges over the California Voting Rights Act, including Anaheim, Modesto and Compton, have made the switch to district-style elections.
“The appellate court has ruled on this law and said it was valid. I keep telling people, it is not good that this city is run by a bunch of old, fat, rich white guys.”
Parris includes himself in that colorful description. He’s not fat but he’s white, wealthy and twice been elected the mayor of Lancaster, Palmdale’s neighbor and rival to the north.
Parris won the mayor’s office under an at-large system -- the same kind he says Palmdale should now abandon.
But unlike Palmdale, Lancaster has a track record of putting minority candidates in office. Palmdale has elected just one Latino council member in its 51-year history: Richard Loa. He served one term. Now he hopes to win again. Loa opposes a change to district elections.
“Because of the pattern of the demographic growth for Latinos in this city, at some point in time they truly will be the dominant force here,” Loa argued. “And at-large elections will probably yield Latinos getting elected to the city council anyway.”
Latinos may not yet be the dominant political force, but they do make up more than half of Palmdale’s 160,000 residents.
“But we don’t have the support of anybody,” said local radio personality and community activist Lilia Gallindo.
She says Latinos are more likely to get the support they lack from council members who live in the same neighborhood as those who voted for them – something more likely to happen under district elections.
“Maybe we don’t have right now the Latino person that we want, but there are people that could represent us better,” Gallindo said. “To me, I feel like we are invisible.”
Gallindo and other residents also worry that the city will drag out the voting rights dispute with costly appeals.
That would mean whoever is elected to local office on November 5 won’t be sworn in until a court can determine how Palmdale should manage its own elections.