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.