Members of the Kern County Board of Supervisors have the opportunity in the next few days to combine a long-running injustice with a blatant waste of taxpayer money and an ill-advised message to constituents.
A trifecta of irresponsibility.
In a decision anyone who pays attention should have seen coming from a mile away, U.S. District Court Judge Dale Drozd ruled last week that the district boundaries that supervisors created for themselves in 2011 violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act. The five supervisors at the time — not a Latino among them — whittled the county's Latino communities, intentionally or not, into pieces small enough to effectively dilute their overall voting power.
Attorneys for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which sued the county in an effort to force the creation of districts that better reflect reality, successfully argued that two of Kern County's five districts should be Latino majority.
Well, of course they should.
Kern County's Hispanic population — a different but largely overlapping designation — grew from 21.6 percent in 1980 to 51.6 percent in 2016, the most recent year for which numbers are available. Hispanics surpassed the 40 percent threshold — theoretically justifying two Latino-majority districts — sometime between 2000 (when 38.5 percent of the county was Hispanic) and 2010 (when they hit 45.5 percent).
So the borders that delineate supervisorial districts in Kern County have probably been askew for 15 years, maybe more, to the detriment of the county’s vastly underrepresented Latino population.
But attorneys for the county have been saying that those district lines need to stay in place for a couple of years more. Are supervisors really willing to spend taxpayer money in court to try and keep them there?
Financing that foray would compound the disservice they’ve already done their Latino constituents. First, there's the public money they'd waste on an unwinnable undertaking. Then, there's the political capital they'd flush down the drain. The Latino voters they snub now are the same Latino voters they'd have to work that much harder to win back after the inevitable appellate court slap-down.
Hey Supervisors: Do the right thing, accept MALDEF’s U.S. District Court victory and redraw those lines now, not later.
That's what local Latino leaders called for Tuesday: immediate action to redraw district maps in advance of the June primary. That would be a daunting task even if the county were to acquiesce, but effectively impossible if they were to fight on. Which is precisely why they might.
It's no small irony that the only two supervisors who are up for reelection in 2018 — Mike Maggard and Zack Scrivner — are the only two who were on the board when the current boundaries were drawn in 2011. And Scrivner, it should be noted, is perhaps the supervisor most at risk of losing his voting base, along with Mick Gleason. The two of them share representation of Kern's geographically vast but sparsely populated and overwhelming white eastern half. The likeliest scenario has one supervisor representing that entire area — a single, giant district where there are now two.
For some supervisors, accepting MALDEF's legal victory might feel akin to accepting ouster from the board.
But MALDEF won the case because it deserved to win the case — that is, if we accept that the U.S. Voting Rights Act is fair and just.
Those at-risk supervisors must remember that they still have two things going for them: the power of incumbency and name recognition, and the fact that voter turnout among Latinos is notoriously low. Ask Republican David Valadao, who is of Portuguese descent, about that: His 21st Congressional District is 71 percent Hispanic and leans decidedly Democratic in terms of registration, but he has beaten Latino Dems twice, and decisively.
Supervisors, consult his playbook.
But in the meantime, do the right thing and allow the Voting Rights Act to be your guide.
Robert Price's column appears Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Reach him at email@example.com or @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.