In February, U.S. District Court Judge Dale A. Drozd found that Kern County’s supervisor districts violated the Voting Rights Act. Specifically, Judge Drozd ruled that districts drawn up in 2011 illegally diluted the voting power of Latinos and ordered the district map be redrawn. Judge Drozd then ordered the county and the plaintiffs, the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF), to get together and create a suitable county map by the end of March.
The fact that Kern County is being forced to redraw its supervisorial district map puts it right in the middle of America's longer history of trying to get democracy right. It also offers us an opportunity to peek into our nation’s long and checkered history of voting, redistricting, and the broader struggle for civil rights in America.
To better understand this history, a brief review of Baker v. Carr (1962), and the broader struggle for electoral representation in America, is in order.
It was 1961. A Republican mayor in Tennessee, Charles Baker, sued the state because Tennessee’s legislative and congressional districts hadn’t been redrawn since 1901. The failure to redraw districts created a numerical imbalance between districts since more people had moved from the countryside to the cities, which put far more people in urban districts.
Baker argued this imbalance violated his equal protection rights (14th amendment) and sued Tennessee’s Secretary of State, Joe Carr.
In 1962, with Bakersfield native Earl Warren presiding, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Baker’s favor. Arguing the right to vote could be undermined by a “false tally” caused by faulty or unrepresentative district lines, the Warren Court wrote a “citizen’s right to a vote free of arbitrary impairment by state action” is “a right secured by the Constitution.” Explaining the logic behind his decision, Earl Warren said we vote for people, "not rocks and trees."
Chief Justice Warren would later say Baker v. Carr was the most important court decision of his life, which helps us understand the importance of Judge Drozd’s redistricting decision.
We know Judge Drozd struck down the Kern County Board of Supervisors 2011 redistricting map because it failed to create an election system “equally open to participation by Latino voters” as mandated by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Using a multi-tiered scoring system, Judge Drozd effectively said Kern County had created supervisor districts the Warren Court found created a false tally. To understand the significance of Judge Drozd’s ruling, and how it fits into our country's history of trying to get democracy right, we need to revisit the divisive political battles and legal decisions that are part of America’s evolving democratic experiment.
We know that our nation didn’t always embrace the concept of one man one vote. Only white male landowners were granted the franchise. This would be changed to allow all white males the right to vote.
Later, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Amendments (the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments) would win African-American males the right to vote. Unfortunately, Jim Crow, the KKK and the Black Codes in the South turned that right into a cruel joke.
Jump forward to 1920, and women finally got the right to vote with the 19th amendment.
Thirty-five years later, with Martin Luther King, Jr. leading the way, the civil rights movement of the 20th century would take off, and the cruel façade of representation for African-Americans would finally begin to lift.
After Baker v. Carr compelled southern states to take redistricting seriously, the 1965 Voting Rights Act forced states to eliminate “tests” and other hurdles (like poll taxes) to voting. This helped make the American voting experience more representative and democratic.
When 18-year-olds, who were fighting and dying in Vietnam without the right to vote, were finally granted the franchise in 1971 (26th amendment), the American experiment in democracy had finally been squared.
Expanding the franchise, and fixing past wrongs, has always been part of the American experience. While bringing more people into our democratic tent hasn’t always been pretty, nor accepted by those with economic clout or in positions of political authority, this is the way our system of checks and balances was designed to work.
In this light, Judge Drozd’s decision (MALDEF v. Kern County Board of Supervisors), falls squarely in line with America’s long and contentious history of correcting past electoral imperfections. The fact that Kern County’s Board of Supervisors was forced to work with MALDEF to produce a new supervisorial district map — to account for our changing demographics — fits into that history.
Given our long and imperfect history with democracy, Judge Drozd’s ruling should be viewed as a significant contribution to the larger “arc of justice” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of during his life. Kern County should embrace this moment.
Mark Martinez teaches political science at Cal State University Bakersfield. The views expressed are his own.