With ACLU support, community coalition, residents sue Riverside County over redistricting plan

An advocacy coalition and several Latino residents, backed by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, are taking legal action against Riverside County over its adopted redistricting plan, arguing the county’s new supervisorial districts dilute Latinos' voting power in violation of the California Constitution and state law.

The lawsuit from six Latino residents and Inland Empire United, a community coalition that was involved in the county’s map-drawing process, arrives about six months after the county’s Board of Supervisors — tasked with approving new boundaries every 10 years in response to the latest U.S. Census — adopted a new map to reflect the population growth over the past decade.

Following a series of meetings and recommendations from county staff and members of the public, the supervisors approved the new map in mid-December in a process that occurs separately from the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which works on redrawing the state’s congressional, legislative and Board of Equalization maps.

More: Riverside County supervisors approve redistricting proposal; lawmakers call map 'legally indefensible'

More: Will Riverside County get sued over its redistricting process? Supervisor Perez thinks so

The complaint, which plaintiffs say was filed in Riverside County Superior Court this week, focuses on how the new districts account for the rapidly shifting demographics of Riverside County, where Latino residents account for 49.7% of the county's total population and about two-fifths of its voting-age population, according to census data.

Specifically, the complaint alleges the county’s adopted plan “splits up politically cohesive Latino communities” across three districts, “shutting out Latino voters in cities like Jurupa Valley and Moreno Valley from the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.”

“The 2021 Redistricting Plan negates the dramatic growth of the County’s Latino community, and the Board adopted the Plan in the face of overwhelming evidence of that it would have discriminatory effects on Latino voters,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit alleges the county’s redistricting plan violates the equal protection provisions of the California State Constitution, as well as the FAIR MAPS Act, a 2019 state law that lays out parameters and criteria for redistricting at the local level.

Along with Inland Empire United, six Latino residents of Riverside County are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, including Daisy Lopez, an Eastvale resident who organizes warehouse workers in the county.

"The warehousing industry in Riverside has seen unmatched economic growth in the southland. However, a very small amount of this growth reaches the homes of the thousands of warehouse workers who move the goods," Lopez said in a statement. "Because of the county’s redistricting plan, our family and friends who work in these warehouses have little to no say on where the profits go and how they can help improve our quality of life.”

The complaint lists Riverside County, all five county supervisors and Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer as defendants. County spokesperson Brooke Federico said Wednesday that the county has not yet received the lawsuit and will “thoroughly review the matter once received.”

“Through rigorous statistical analyses by well-respected experts and consultants, the county ensured that all voters have a meaningful opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice,” Federico said in an email. “The county followed a rigorous method analyzing citizen voting age population data, racially polarized voting analysis and an opportunity to elect report, in addition to holding many community meetings and public hearings to ensure that residents have fair and equal representation.”

The new supervisorial map is “fully compliant” with the federal Voting Rights Act and the state's FAIR MAPS Act, Federico said, adding the plan includes “at least two effective Latino opportunity-to-elect districts” – echoing what county counsel said during redistricting hearings last year.

Complaint alleges incumbency was a factor in map-drawing

Along with its focus on the county’s shifting demographics, the complaint also alleges the county's supervisors “prioritized incumbency protection” over complying with the state’s redistricting criteria.

“For months, Riverside residents demanded the county to do the right thing and adopt maps that would lead to equitable and fair representation. Instead, the supervisors ignored the community and adopted maps that would ensure they had easier reelections,” said Michael Gomez Daly, executive director of Inland Empire United. “The supervisors' redistricting plan is a classic case of politicians putting their own interests over people.”

The complaint notes incumbency is not included among the required criteria to be considered under state law, yet some county supervisors mentioned it during the redistricting hearings.

For example, in a final redistricting hearing, Fifth District Supervisor Jeff Hewitt said the proposed map creating two Latino-majority districts would place him in the same district as Third District Supervisor Chuck Washington.

“The County rejected Community Map 1.4 because it threatened to disrupt the electoral status quo for incumbents, as expressly noted by supervisors during multiple redistricting hearings,” the complaint states.

Rather than Community Map 1.4, which was developed by the Inland Empire Redistricting Hub — a group of organizations led by I.E. United — the board ultimately approved a map that establishes one Latino-majority district.

The adopted map unifies the city of Riverside within a single district alongside Perris and Mead Valley, while splitting part of Jurupa Valley into a district that spans the county’s western border. Hemet and San Jacinto also were moved from the third district to the fifth under the adopted map.

The complaint also alleges the county “failed to take steps to encourage non-English speaking community members to engage in the redistricting process, as required under the FAIR MAPS Act.”

“For example, call-in instructions for public comment on draft maps were provided only in English, and none of the redistricting meeting agendas or agenda attachments were provided in Spanish,” the complaint states. “Although members of the public requested Spanish language interpretation throughout the redistricting process, the County did not consistently make a Spanish interpreter available.”

Perez, state lawmakers had concerns with the adopted map

The board adopted its redistricting proposal by a 4-1 vote in mid-December, with Fourth District Supervisor V. Manuel Perez the only member in opposition to the plan.

The day of the vote, Perez, the first Latino to serve on the board, offered his support for the map backed by the ACLU and IE United, calling it the only map “that does not crack or dilute the Latino vote and … that does not present a risk of a potential lawsuit from specifically ACLU or MALDEF.”

“I don't want others, whether they're from LA or San Francisco or wherever, to decide our fate as a county,” Perez said, referring to the possibility of maps being drawn by a third party.

Perez was not the only elected official to express concern with the county’s proposal.

A trio of Democratic lawmakers from the county — Assemblymembers Sabrina Cervantes of Corona, Jose Medina of Riverside, and Eduardo Garcia of Coachella — also criticized the approved plan, arguing it “violates state and federal law by intentionally fracturing compact and cohesive communities of Latino voters into multiple districts."

"We fear that hardworking Riverside County taxpayers will ultimately be forced to foot the County’s bill for an expensive lawsuit defending a map that is legally indefensible," the lawmakers said in a joint statement in December.

The trio of lawmakers, led by Cervantes, has also introduced a bill in the California Legislature that would establish a citizens redistricting commission for Riverside County’s supervisorial districts, similar to ones in other large counties. That bill passed the Assembly and is under consideration in the state Senate.

Several other groups, including the ACLU of Southern California and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, also pushed the county to comply with federal and state voting laws in letters sent to the county during the redistricting process.

In early December, a new report from the UCLA Voting Rights Project found the county would be at risk of a lawsuit if its new maps did not include two Latino-majority supervisorial districts.

However, legal counsel for the county maintained the adopted map is in compliance with federal voting laws.

There is recent precedent for a California county getting sued over its redistricting process. In 2018, MALDEF reached a court agreement with Kern County in the Central Valley to redraw its 2011 maps to create a second Latino-majority district.

In Riverside County, the plaintiffs are seeking a judgement that the county’s plan violates the FAIR MAPS Act, along with a ruling that would require the county to adopt a map that keeps the Latino communities of interest in northwest Riverside and Jurupa Valley, as well as those in Perris and Moreno Valley, unified in single districts.

Daly, the executive director of Inland Empire United, was hopeful that the court will rule in his group's favor, noting the complaint “is lifting up” the map that would establish two Latino-majority supervisorial district.

“We would probably advocate that (the supervisors) just adopt Community Map 1.4,” Daly said. “The supervisors can’t be trusted, and that’s to be expected. How can you ask somebody to vote on something that would make their own re-election difficult?”

Tom Coulter covers politics and can be reached at thomas.coulter@desertsun.com.

This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Coalition, residents sue Riverside County over its redistricting plan