Lawsuit: Santa Clara Elections Run Afoul of Voting Rights Act

A new lawsuit claims the city of Santa Clara’s at-large elections violate state law by systematically discriminating against Asian-Americans.

The city’s winner-take-all system dilutes minority votes and has prevented Asian-Americans from ever being elected to the City Council, according to the complaint filed last week by retired social worker Wes Mukoyama. In 2016 alone, five Asian-American candidates lost despite the fact that almost 40 percent of the city and a third of its electorate is of Asian descent.

“Something is wrong when such a sizeable Asian-American population cannot elect candidates of its choice,” said Mukoyama, who’s represented by civil rights attorney Robert Rubin and the nonprofit Asian Law Alliance.

The California Voting Rights Act prohibits at-large elections in jurisdictions with racially polarized voting patterns, which, according to the lawsuit, persist in Santa Clara. Not a single Asian-American has won a seat on the council since at least 1951, when Santa Clara adopted its city charter.

“It is unconscionable that the city would allow such wide scale disenfranchisement of such a significant segment of its population,” said Rubin, who successfully resolved more than a dozen voting rights cases in California. “It is particularly troublesome because the discrimination is based upon race.”

Santa Clara spokeswoman Jennifer Yamaguma said switching to district elections would require a ballot measure to amend the city charter. But, she added, the city’s Ethics Committee has advised the council to reconvene the Charter Review Committee, which will ultimately decide whether to bring the measure to voters.

Rubin called the city’s initiatory action “window dressing.”

“They’re not promising to do anything,” he said. “They’re promising to study the issue, but we’re not interested in studying this issue. We want it resolved.”

Richard Konda, head of the Asian Law Alliance, said he’s not going to hold his breath either. Mukoyama brought the issue to the city’s attention more than five years ago. Though the city formed the Charter Review Committee to address the concern, Konda said, nothing changed.

“They’ve been aware of the problem for quite a while,” Konda said. “They’ve had a lot of time to fix this but haven’t. Santa Clara continues to be one of those cities where the council doesn’t reflect the diversity of the city.”

Rubin has sent multiple letters over the past year urging the city to correct course or risk a lawsuit, he said, but each one was ignored.

“People don’t give up power voluntarily unless they’re forced to,” Rubin said. He added: “The case must proceed. The city has delayed and delayed, in even establishing a process for making a decision. Disenfranchised persons should not be asked to wait any longer. Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] taught us that justice delayed is justice denied.”

Click here to read a copy of the complaint.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

20 Comments

  1. It’s not a problem because ICE will be removing many of that group who are here illegally. They are here but they can’t vote so it wouldn’t matter if they were 75% of the City.

    • Not all Asians and minorities are illegal.
      But there are certainly a group of people in America that believe that a person is illegal just because they don’t have a white face. One cannot tell if someone is a citizen by the color of their face.
      Again this comment is not addressed to anyone in particular; just trying to address the ignorance within this certain group of people.

      • AA,

        There’s a very simple way to fix your complaint: just purge the voter rolls and re-open them to verified citizens.

        Problem fixed, easy-peasy.

  2. The entrenched Santa Clara family dynasties (or cops or school district stooges & friends) aren’t ever going to give up their seats unless forced to do so. Until a proportional voting system is put into place, noting is going to change … A newcomer does not have a chance at all against an incumbent, and all elections must be included including clerk and police chief too. Santa Clara cannot get rid of the good ‘ol boys and good ‘ol girls … Mahan is back again and should not be at all after violating lobbyist activities too. But last city attorney protected her then he resigned … The last city attorney, who recently resigned, even denied that there was a problem with the existing system and that there was a threat of legal action. He was in bed with two sitting council members who won’t go away and the last mayor who resigned in shame too. Santa Clara is filled with staff that needs to be fired too … It is a genuine mess that the current Mayor is trying (& doing a good job at shaking things up) to correct against the will of the three stooges (Mahan, Casserta & Kolstad) who do whatever they can to interfere with Mayor Gillmore’s progress,

    • not such a good Asian American track record in California Court politics. what’s up with that?

    • > Until a proportional voting system is put into place, noting is going to change …

      “Proportional” base on what? Based on tribal identity?

      Should we segregate people based on their tribal identity or tribal designation?

      Should we put tribal designations of candidates on election ballots?

  3. Elections by racial quota, now what’s wrong with that picture? At best it would have to be Gerrymandering by household. Possible segregated elections, How would it sound if white people were only allowed to vote for white presidents?

  4. “In 2016 alone, five Asian-American candidates lost despite the fact that almost 40 percent of the city and a third of its electorate is of Asian descent.” So what you’re saying is that you have to rig an election to get a desired outcome? It’s one thing if there were no candidates of minority descent running. One should look at their campaigns verses the ones who won. Santa Clara’s most recent elections were overrun by reruns, candidates who have been elected in the past. Simply put, they had better name recognition. How about instituting a lifetime cap of 2 terms for any candidate instead?

    Thanks Robert Rubin for employing your Trumpian principles in Santa Clara. Because of you, we can finally get rid of this silly notion of Democracy and replace it with a Trumpocracy, where if you don’t like the results you’ve seen get someone to rig it for the desired outcome.

    • > Thanks Robert Rubin for employing your Trumpian principles in Santa Clara.

      Robert Rubin? Civil rights attorney representing Asian-American candidate Wes Mukoyama?

      What “Trumpian principles” is attorney Rubin employing? And WHY would he be employing them? And how do “Trumpian principles” undermine Democracy and replace it with a Trumpocracy? And what IS a Trumpocracy?

      This makes no sense.

  5. Maybe the Asian candidates need to get out and campaign more. Knock on a few doors so people know who you are and what you stand for.

  6. Re terms: 2016 Measure P changed the term limitation rules so that a council member can serve a total of 2 terms only, removing the “consecutive terms” qualification which allowed the individual to serve an indefinite number of terms as long as they weren’t consecutive. However, the term counting wasn’t retroactive. Same rule applies to position of Mayor. An individual can serve 2 terms on Council and 2 terms as Mayor.

  7. District elections are a Bad Idea. San Jose switched to district elections. Are the residents better off? No. The only ones who benefited were a handful of politicians who couldn’t get elected without that crutch.

    Candidates should run on platforms that benefit their city. That becomes a low priority with district elections.

  8. “Something is wrong when such a sizeable Asian-American population cannot elect candidates of its choice,” said Mukoyama …”

    This is a statement that could be uttered only by someone who is ignorant or deceitful, as it is based on the false assumption that Asian-Americans living in Santa Clara share the national and cultural traditions that constitute a social group, and is supported by none of the evidence necessary to prove the many ethnicities that make-up the city’s Asian population ever agreed on a particular candidate (or anything else, for that matter).

    To make the claim that the majority of Asian-Americans, who share neither a common history, native tongue, nor religion, think alike is so belittling and racist that only the most incompetent of courts would ever entertain such an outrage.

  9. > “Something is wrong when such a sizeable Asian-American population cannot elect candidates of its choice,”

    Yeah, it really sucks.

    But I understand that the Chinese population in the Peoples Republic of China and the Korean population in North Korea have the same problem.

    • The candidates can cause this when 2 or 3 run for the same seat and are connected to a certain group. This fact divides the vote and typically none will win if they have no relationship with other races or groups.

  10. During the last several election campaigns we were visited by at least a half-dozen candidates who were walking the precinct. We’ve had East Indians, blacks, and whites all come by to ask for our votes. Maybe Wes Mukoyama should expend more energy walking precincts, instead of pestering the City to change its ways for his personal benefit.

    Mr. Mukoyama’s hired mouthpiece, Robert Rubin sez:

    “It is unconscionable that the city would allow such wide scale disenfranchisement of such a significant segment of its population,” said Rubin, who successfully resolved more than a dozen voting rights cases in California. “It is particularly troublesome because the discrimination is based upon race.”

    Rubin has it both wrong and backward. First off, Mr. Mukoyama was not “disenfranchised”. He ran as a candidate, and he voted. Likewise, the city’s voters were not “disenfranchised”. They just didn’t vote for Mukoyama.

    Rubin adds that it’s “troublesome” that Mr. Mukoyama lost because of his race. (Show of hands: Does anyone believe that Mukoyama lost because of his race? Hmm-m, no hands…).

    Next, does anyone else wonder about Mr. Mukoyama hiring a lawyer named Rubin to argue that Asians are under-represented?? Is Mr. Mukoyama irony-challenged, or what? Someone should ask him why he didn’t get a good Asian attorney. Does he think white lawyers are better?

    Rubin acknowledges that the City will study the issue, but he says:

    “We’re not interested in studying this issue. We want it resolved.”

    Which sounds like: Hang ‘em now! We’ll have a trial later.

    Mr. Rubin presumes that his complaint will be resolved the way he wants: by giving his client a leg up over competing candidates with non-Japanese names. But what if the city’s Ethics Commission decides that at-large elections are ethical? (Thus confirming that over the past two centuries our elections were in fact ethical.) Is Rubin pounding the table for immediate action because Mukoyama’s case is so weak?

    We were all taught in school that America is a “melting pot” where diverse peoples left their racial baggage behind, and immigrated here to become Americans. But race-based district elections contradict that principle.

    Mr. Rubin doesn’t seem to want a thoughtful discussion comparing cities with at-large elections, to cities with district elections because at-large elections ipso facto prioritize the interest of the entire city above the interests of race-based districts.

    Furthermore, city-wide elections produce candidates that benefit the entire city—while race-based districts are a crutch for any failed candidate who didn’t walk enough precincts or get sufficient endorsements.

    And Rubin and Mukoyama avoid mentioning that a Japanese candidate was elected in a city-wide vote, winning every San Jose precinct. But Norman Mineta actually campaingned for election. Mr. Mukoyama might think about campaigning like Mineta did, instead lawyering up in hopes of getting the government to help him get elected.

    In district elections voters lose the choice of a wider and more diverse slate of candidates who campaign on behalf of the entire city, rather than their small, racially gerrymandered district. At-large candidates naturally appeal to mainstream voters who want a better city, versus the usual leftist minority that always prefers the divisive racial politics of district elections.

    The time has passed for district elections. When San Jose implemented district elections, Caucasians were more than three-quarters of the city’s population. But the latest U.S. Census numbers show that Caucasians are now only about 32% of the population—while Hispanics and Asians are now more than 86% of the local population.

    If Norman Mineta could win an at-large election when the city was 75%+ Caucasian, how can “white racism” be the reason that Mukoyama lost his election? Isn’t the loss due to the candidate himself?

    If Santa Clara decided on district elections, the new district lines would be race-based. They would divide the city by race. Arbitrary districts create actual ‘institutional racism’. Is that what voters want? Is more racism good for the city?

    Santa Clara residents need to ask themselves what is best for their city: voting for at-large candidates who will represent the entire city? Or voting within the new racially gerrymandered districts that Mukoyama is demanding because he lost his election?

    Think about it, Sunnyvale voters, because you might be deciding on one or the other…

    • “We were all taught in school that America is a “melting pot” where diverse peoples left their racial baggage behind, and immigrated here to become Americans.” America has not been a melting pot for at least 50 years. We are increasingly populated with hyphenated Americans.

  11. There you go again using that logic stuff Smokey, when a good lawyer can damn the facts in court for half the price.
    Wonder what the supremes are thinking?

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