A History of Voter Suppression: SUHSD Board’s Redistricting Process and the Fight for Representation

9 mins read

In mid-August, the Sequoia Union School Board made the decision to switch from electing its Trustees using an at-large method to a district-based method. This switch comes following a wave of counties, school boards, and cities changing their election methods after the passing of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) in 2001.

At-large voting means that all residents of a district vote for all elected officials; in the case of the Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD), this means that all residents vote for all five of the Trustees and that Trustees can reside anywhere within the district. This method of voting is often criticized because, in districts where there is a minority voting population, at-large voting prevents them from having any real influence over the outcome of elections.

The fight for minority voters to have political representation is far from new. One of the central tenets of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s was expanding voting rights for black Americans, whose ability to vote was often impeded by difficult literacy tests, coercion, and other forms of deception and bureaucratic obstacles. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, which banned such discriminatory practices as the literacy tests and gave the federal government the power to oversee voter registration in districts where less than 50% of nonwhite citizens were registered. Furthermore, it provided that states with histories of minority disenfranchisement submit any changes to voting laws to the federal government for consideration.

The effects of the Voting Rights Act were clear and immediate. Voter registration and turnout among black Americans in the South rose sharply over the next few years; black representation in state and local offices steadily increased. While discriminatory practices did not necessarily end, the Act provided black voters with the legal means to pursue justice.

However, the protections to minority voters provided by the Voting Rights Act are still under attack. In the 2013 Supreme Court case of Shelby County v. Holder, the Court overturned Section 5 of the Act, the key section that required historically discriminatory states to submit changes to voting laws for review by the federal government.

Almost immediately afterward, Southern state legislators began passing a slew of laws that essentially walked back 50 years of progress for minority voters. These laws included the elimination of early voting, same-day registration, straight-ticket voting (where a voter can select all of a party’s candidates with one mark), as well as voter ID requirements.

The majority of these legislations were passed under the guise of combatting voter fraud, but ultimately disproportionately affected minority voters. In the case of the North Carolina’s House Bill 589, proposed by Republicans, the Fourth Circuit Court found that the new provisions “were enacted with racially discriminatory intent” and targeted black voters with “almost surgical precision.”

Another factor in the recent conservative backlash against minority voters is that they vote overwhelmingly Democratic. In the historic election of 2008, when Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president, black and Hispanic voter turnout was at a record high; as a result, many of the offices previously held by Republicans were replaced with Democrats.

Republican efforts to reclaim the power lost during the 2008 elections were well-timed with the 2010 census, which provided the opportunity to create new Congressional district maps. The Redistricting Majority Project, or REDMAP, was a party-wide effort to get Republicans into state Houses, who would then approve redrawn Congressional districts that ensure Republican majorities.

The “Hanging Claw”, or North Carolina’s Twelfth Congressional District, is an infamous instance of gerrymandering. Over 100 miles long, it almost exclusively encompasses black neighborhoods.

These new Congressional districts packed as many minorities (and therefore Democratic) voters into one district as they could so that surrounding districts would now have more Republican votes. The result of this gerrymandering was that many purple states suddenly had a majority of Republican House Representatives, despite the political makeup of the state.

However, gerrymandering is not the only way to minimize the power of the minority vote. An opposing strategy is to bury the minority vote within a larger district, where the majority white population will consistently prevent minorities from electing candidates of choice. This phenomenon, in which the white population votes one way and the nonwhite population votes another, is called racially-polarized voting and is the key element of the California Voting Rights Act.

When racially-polarized voting occurs within a district where the white population is a majority, the at-large election method silences minority voices by default. In order to prevent minority votes from being silenced, California state legislature passed the CVRA, which outlawed at-large voting when it “impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.” A protected class is defined by the law as a “class of voters who are members of a race, color, or language minority group.” The CVRA also mandated that in a lawsuit over at-large voting, if a county, city, or the like is found to violate a protected class’s rights, then the city must change to district-based elections and pay all the legal fees of the lawsuit. So far, not a single city, county, or school district has won a case concerning the CVRA.

This past May, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) threatened SUHSD with a lawsuit if the district did not voluntarily make the switch to district-based elections, citing demographic and electoral information, as well as complaints about lack of representation from Latino residents.

Indeed, SUHSD is an almost perfect example of a voting population in which the minority vote cannot affect the election; SUHSD is 51% non-Hispanic white, 30% Latino, 12% Asian American, and 4% African American. Latino and African American populations are almost exclusively concentrated within the communities of North Fair Oaks, East Palo Alto, and East Menlo Park, a result of racist housing policies from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, whose effects carry into today.

A 1937 “redlining” map for San Francisco. Red neighborhoods indicate where banks would refuse to give loans and mortgages to ‘undesirable’ populations; they were almost exclusively communities of color.

Housing policies ushered in a host of other problems for these communities, including the denial of quality education. Ravenswood City School District, which serves East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park, simply did not have the same resources as the affluent white neighborhoods just across the highway. Essentially, the racial segregation that occurred because of housing discrimination meant that students of color were forced to attend underfunded schools and thus receive a sub par education. A lawsuit alleging segregation in local school districts eventually helped to fix this issue; in 1986, a settlement was reached that bussed 166 of East Palo Alto’s students into surrounding school districts (this practice continues today).

SUHSD’s local history of quality education being a privilege students of color need to fight for, rather than a right, gives particular weight to MALDEF’s accusations of the school district.

Therefore, rather than engaging in a costly lawsuit, the Board made the decision to switch to district-based elections. The current president of the Board, Alan Sarver, stated in an interview that “the purpose of the districting [process] is to ensure that community voices of various populations that make up our diverse district are heard in the election process and in the makeup of the board.”

With a student population that is now a majority Latino, representation of their voices on the Board is more crucial than ever. Sarver added, “Over the past 16 years…the board has always had at least one Hispanic member…It’s only in the last election for the first time in 16 years that we’ve had zero Hispanic members on the board. So this is an attempt to more formalize it that there are community Trustee districts across the district that guarantee that representatives of those communities each get a chance to be part of the Board.”

The Latino Board members Sarver referenced are Lorraine Rumley, serving as a Trustee from 1999 to 2011, and Olivia Martinez, serving from 1999 to 2015.

Simone Rick-Kennel, M-A’s principal, expressed thoughts similar to Sarver’s about the process. “It is important to get perspectives of all stakeholders in a school community,” she said in an email statement. “The school board approves board policy and administrative regulations that govern the operations of the school district…The voice of underrepresented communities on a school board may be overlooked or not heard in making important policy decisions.”

Working with the National Demographics Corporation (NDC), a business that helps local governments district and redistrict in compliance with various voting rights laws, the Board produced four different maps that split SUHSD into districts. Drafts 1, 2, and 3 split the district into five sections, while Draft 4 split it into seven.

Each section will elect its own Trustee to the school board, who must reside within the section they represent.

Type an address into this interactive map to see where it falls under the various drafts.

The Board then opened the maps up to discussion amongst the community, hosting three community input meetings in Sequoia High School, Fair Oaks Community Center, and East Palo Alto Academy. During these meetings, Douglas Johnson, president of the NDC, presented information about the demographic makeup of the district and its electorate, as well as the four map drafts. Members of the community then voiced their opinions on which map they preferred and why.

Douglas Johnson, president of the DNC, speaks at a community input meeting at the Fair Oaks Community Center.

At the meeting in North Fair Oaks, community members were overwhelmingly in favor of Draft 4, which created seven trustee districts, in which District D is essentially the North Fair Oaks community itself. North Fair Oaks is an unincorporated district of San Mateo County nestled between Redwood City, Atherton, and Menlo Park, that was 73% Latino according to the 2010 census. It is the one other major area within SUHSD where more than 50% of the citizens of voting age are Latino, outside of East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park.

Map presented at the community meetings detailing Latino percent of citizens of voting age in SUHSD.

Community members who spoke in favor of Draft 4 consistently expressed feelings of underrepresentation and inequality. Of the crowd of approximately 35 people, who were overwhelmingly Latina women and their families, the consensus was reached that seven trustee districts would allow for the representation and empowerment of local Latino communities. It was also commonly agreed upon that it was necessary for Trustees to have a relationship with the communities they were serving, who personally knew and could understand issues specific to their constituents. Several community members also expressed dissatisfaction with the current public education system; they believe that having representatives of the minority communities of North Fair Oaks and East Palo Alto would bring greater educational opportunities for minority and low-income youth.

Draft 4 of the proposed maps splits the district into seven Trustee areas.

A majority of attendees to the meeting at East Palo Alto Academy also favored Draft 4, also expressing desires for increased representation and better connections with the community.

Despite this community input, at a recent Board meeting on November 2, the five current Trustees agreed to narrow the map choices down to Drafts 1 and 3. Draft 2 was eliminated for dividing communities up too much; this draft attempted to include at least three different high school jurisdictions per Trustee district.

The skinny Trustee districts of Draft 2 were eliminated for dividing communities.

Draft 4 was eliminated for the opposite problem; Board members agreed that having seven districts would make it too difficult for decisions to be made by the Board. They also agreed that having more Board members would ultimately dilute the power of representatives from the so-called “communities of interest” in North Fair Oaks and East Palo Alto.

Voter turnout in these communities was also an issue brought up by Sarver. In district G of Draft 4, which encompasses East Palo Alto and East Menlo Park, voter turnout was about 21% of the citizen voting age population in 2014; in district D, which encompasses most of North Fair Oaks, voter turnout was about 23% for that same year. Turnout in the other, more affluent districts, was about 20 – 30% higher. Sarver raised concerns about politicians who do not truly represent the Latino communities of these areas using the smaller districts to win an easy majority and secure a seat on the Board since minority voters are not turning out in high numbers.

Both Sarver and Georgia Jack, the newest Board member, also mentioned concerns about political competition from gentrifiers, who are shifting the demographic makeup of North Fair Oaks, East Palo Alto, and East Menlo Park. Given the rapid gentrification of these communities, a district that represents a minority community currently might not stay that way over the coming years.

Sarver added in an email statement that “the voices in favor of a 7 member Board all identified themselves as representing Innovate Public Schools, and KIPP, and Rocketship Charter Schools.” Innovate Public Schools, KIPP(Knowledge is Power Program), and Rocketship Charter Schools are all organizations that work to provide quality education to low-income and minority students. They have worked together in the past to bring charter schools to Redwood City, hoping to give parents in the North Fair Oaks community better options than what the public school system has to offer currently. Because parents who voiced support for the seven-district map were connected to these charter schools and their work in the district, there were concerns about conflicts of interest.

However, the fact that parents in these low-income communities feel the need to lobby for charter schools and other programs to improve their children’s education raises other questions about why they feel that the district inadequately serves these minority students, and eerily echoes concerns of black parents from these neighborhoods in past decades.

All of it circles back to the original question that forced the Board to begin the redistricting process in the first place: are minority communities accurately represented in our school district, and what can the Board do to make sure their voices are heard?

Board members will be discussing the district maps further at their next meeting, on Wednesday, November 16. They aim to finalize decisions by the end of the year and will submit the maps for consideration to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors by March 2017.

Emma Dewey is a senior in her second year on the Chronicle staff and her first year as an editor. She enjoys working with other writers to make the Chronicle the best it can be. She is most interested in using journalism to connect with her community and affect social change.

Latest from Blog