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Lawsuit: At-Large Elections Lead to Racially-Polarized Voting

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A new lawsuit brought on behalf of the Asian American community charges that the City of Fullerton violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA) with its system of at-large elections, in which every voter can vote for every city council member, regardless of where the candidate or the voter lives.

Jonathan Paik v City of Fullerton argues that Fullerton’s system of at-large elections dilutes the votes of the Asian American community and prevents the community from electing a candidate of choice, thereby precluding meaningful participation in the political process.

Although Asian Americans make up 23 percent of the City of Fullerton’s population of 135,161, and although many Asian Americans have run for office, only two Asian Americans have ever been elected to city council, the last one in the 1990’s.

An alternative, advocates argue, would be a system of district elections, in which city council members must live in the district they represent and be elected by the people who live there. In this way, elected officials would be accountable to the communities that elect them, and minority communities would have a voice.

“It’s important to convert the at-large system so that everyone can have a seat at the table,” Leboni Hoq, Litigation Director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Los Angeles, told NBC News. “It’s about time a city the size of Fullerton—one of the largest cities with an at-large election system—converts to a system that is fair to all of the communities.”

Although there have been previous challenges to at-large elections in other cities in California—including Palmdale, Whittier, Anaheim, as well as another case against Fullerton—those have primarily been on behalf of the Latino community. This is one of the first cases brought on behalf of the Asian American community.

"Asian American voters long to participate in Fullerton's city government, but the current at-large system prevents that by diluting our power at the ballot box," said plaintiff Jonathan Paik in a statement, "We join with other voices in our community in calling for a change that provides all residents in this city an opportunity to have a seat at the table."