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Districts’ fairness reviewed

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San Mateo County has elected only one Latino and no Asian supervisors in the past 25 years, even though the groups comprise half the county’s population. - COURTESY SAN MATEO COUNTY
  • Courtesy San Mateo County
  • San Mateo County has elected only one Latino and no Asian supervisors in the past 25 years, even though the groups comprise half the county’s population.

Having recently settled a lawsuit that alleged discriminatory election practices, San Mateo County is preparing to review its supervisorial districts’ boundaries to study if they, too, may be unfair.

An advisory committee comprising two county supervisors, city council members from Daly City and East Palo Alto, and five appointed citizens is scheduled to meet starting June 6 to discuss the area’s geography, its demographics and the political muscle of various voting populations. The county has hired a demographer to compile ethnic and racial data, and a mapping consultant to plot it all out on a map.

The county reviews its district boundaries every 10 years to account for U.S. Census data, said spokesman Marshall Wilson. This review, seven years early, is required by the terms of a January settlement of a lawsuit in which six county residents sued over alleged vote inequality. The at-large supervisorial elections had long diluted the voting power of Latinos and Asians, according to the lawsuit.

Last fall, voters passed a ballot measure to overhaul San Mateo County’s electoral system, and chucking that system was the real win, said attorney Robert Rubin of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, who helped represent the plaintiffs.

San Mateo County had long clung to a policy of allowing the whole county to elect individual district supervisors, which meant that certain voter populations always got shut out, Rubin said. In court filings he and co-counsel Beth Parker called it a “racially polarized” system. They cited statistics to bolster their case: Asians and Latinos comprise half of the county’s population, but in 25 years, one Latino and no Asians had been elected to the Board of Supervisors.

Rubin hopes the new district-based voting will rectify the unequal representation while addressing other good-governance issues. It makes sense to contain elections within a district, he says, because then the entire voting bloc will know the local issues. It also gives candidates with less money a flying chance against their well-heeled competitors.

Whether the current districts will beget a more diverse board remains to be seen, Rubin says, though he is heartened that the county has asked for so much community input.

County counsel John Beiers — who helped defend the county in the lawsuit, arguing that the at-large system didn’t pre-empt diversity — says substantive change will take time, though he’s optimistic that the Asian and Latino officials who currently sit on city councils will eventually become supervisors.

Beiers admits the current district lines have become a point of contention, and he is prepared for spirited discussion about them.

“There’s a school of thought that the lines are appropriate as they are,” he said. “And there’s a school of thought they should be changing.”
 

rswan@sfexaminer.com