Latinos blast voting year change
Title: Latinos blast voting year change
Source: The Press-Enterprise
Date: July 11, 2013
By: David Olson
The Perris City Council’s decision this week to shift the dates of its elections could violate the federal Voting Rights Act, the president of a leading Latino civil-rights group said Thursday, July 11.
The council on Tuesday voted 4-1 to move city elections from even-numbered years to odd-numbered years, contending that votes can be counted more quickly.
But studies show that the gap between Latino and white voter turnout typically is wider in the off years.
Leading Inland Latino activists accused the Perris council majority of attempting to suppress Latino votes.
The Voting Rights Act bars any practice that dilutes the votes of people of color, said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel for the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
Saenz said he was unaware of the details of the Perris ordinance but, he said, it could be subject to a legal challenge.
“It’s certainly something we’d look at,” he said.
City Councilman Mark Yarbrough denied the change was aimed to reduce voter turnout.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Yarbrough, noting that his ethnic background is half Mexican and half Cherokee. “This is not about culture. It’s not about race.”
Yarbrough said the shift is designed primarily to speed vote counting. Ballots in odd-numbered years are far shorter, so results are tallied more quickly.
In addition, Yarbrough said, in even-numbered years when presidential, gubernatorial, congressional and other elections take place, along with votes on initiatives, city council races get overshadowed, and many voters know little about the candidates.
Yarbrough said the council voted about 10 years ago to change the elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years in an effort to increase voter participation.
“It made very little difference in Perris,” he said.
The numbers show otherwise. Voter participation soared after the shift, according to Riverside County registrar of voters records.
In 2003, the last year a Perris City Council election fell in an odd-numbered year, 3,046 votes were cast for council candidates. Each voter could choose up to two candidates.
In the next election, in 2006, 8,300 votes were cast. By the 2008 presidential election year, the number of city council votes jumped to 15,020.
Councilwoman Rita Rogers said it’s impossible to compare those years because of the city’s rapid growth.
But there was a 393 percent increase in city council votes cast between 2003 and 2008 — more than 10 times Perris’ 37 percent increase in population during that time period.
In the November 2003 election, fewer than 16 percent of registered voters in Perris cast ballots. In 2008, nearly 68 percent did.
Eighteen people spoke on the issue at Tuesday’s council meeting, none in favor of the measure. Yarbrough and Mayor Daryl Busch acknowledged there was no community pressure to change the election year.
Councilman Julio Rodriguez, who cast the sole vote Tuesday against the change, said his colleagues fear the growth of the city’s Latino population.
Perris is now 75 percent Latino, according to U.S. Census estimates. About half of registered voters are Latino, according to Political Data Inc., the state's largest provider of voter information. The Perris council is multi-ethnic: Besides Yarbrough, Rogers is African-American, Busch is white, Al Landers is Anglo and one-quarter Cherokee, and Rodriguez is Latino.
“They know the changes are not in their favor,” Rodriguez said of his four colleagues. “Instead of embracing it and working to benefit the entire community, they do this. They know Latinos and young people vote in lower numbers in odd-numbered election years. They know it. I want every single person to vote, and they don’t.”
Riverside County Registrar of Voters Kari Verjil said vote-counting typically is slower in even-numbered years because of the longer ballots. It usually takes an extra seven or eight hours to count ballots cast at polling places and about three weeks instead of two to count mail-in ballots, she said.
Rodriguez said that increasing voter turnout is far more important than obtaining election results earlier.
“I could wait 72 days for election results if every person eligible to vote can vote, because that’s true democracy,” said Rodriguez, who was elected in November 2012 after an intense voter-registration and get-out-the-vote campaign among Latino organizations throughout Riverside County.
But Busch said it isn’t the council members’ fault if voters don’t turn out.
“It’s the voters’ responsibility to vote in every election,” he said.
Saenz said Busch’s statement was “cavalier.”
“That’s not a statement from someone who wants to increase participation,” Saenz said. “If you want to increase participation, you take steps to facilitate that.”
Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate professor of political science at UC Riverside, said the change will reduce the chance that candidates who appeal to Latino voters will win.
Francisco Solá, of the Riverside-based Latino Voter Registration Project, said the drop in Latino turnout that would come with the switch to odd-numbered years will mean a dwindling non-Latino minority in Perris is determining the future of a city that is three-quarters Latino.
“We cannot have important decisions made by a small percentage of the electorate,” he said.
The election change will extend all the council members’ terms by one year.
Perris Elementary School District elections are held in odd-numbered years, but additional polling places would be needed for city council elections, costing Perris about $10,000, Verjil said.