Joaquin Avila

Voting rights attorney Joaquin Avila perusing bracero-era memorabilia in Salinas, at an exhibition honoring him and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

Joaquin Avila has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, and also Monterey County Superior Court. He's an acclaimed voting rights attorney whose career began in the '70s in California, and who continues a fight today that he thought would've been completely won long ago. 

His hallmark legal and advocacy effort has been to convert from at-large to district elections, designed to give a voice to smaller communities, and give minority neighborhoods the power to win elections, instead of campaigning city-wide to represent larger, more established constituencies.

(Locally, this type of conversion to district elections played out most recently at Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System. Four of five board members previously lived in South Salinas; now they come from five different regions, and there are three of five Latinos serving, up from one.) 

Avila has received numerous awards for his work. He won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1996, the Harvard Law School Association award in 2012 and the Ohtli award from the Mexican government, among other awards.

He suffered a stroke in 2010, leaving him with continuing health challenges (he can't fly, for example, but travels by train from Seattle all over the county). He's still active in voting rights, and this week visited old friends active in voting rights in Salinas for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

The Weekly caught up with Avila at a month-long historical exhibit honoring Mexican-American and Chicano civil rights achievements in the area, including farmworker rights, ending the bracero program and voting rights achievements.

The exhibit is located at 1123 Baldwin St., Salinas. For more information and hours, call 794-0006. 

How did you get involved in voting rights cases?

I got my first case against the city of San Fernando in Los Angeles County and lost at the trial court and the appellate court. That [published appellate decision] made it difficult [in California], so we didn't file any more cases. 

That loss shifted my work from California to Texas. I spent six years out there with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Intellectually, I knew it voting rights a good thing. But I didn’t get a passion for it until I went to Texas and worked with MALDEF and saw how people were struggling for decades to make the political process more accessible. 

I’d talk to people who for generations had gotten beat up, fired, or harassed when they [advocated voter registration in minority communities]. 

It made a big impression on me. 

Is it always a good idea to switch to district elections?

It makes an electoral system more accountable. If you’re not doing well, you get kicked out the next election. It’s much harder to do that [in a larger district.

At-large, you need money to campaign city-wide or district-wide, plus it’s subject to racial polarization.

There are still obstacles that prevent people of color from truly having franchise. One is minority vote dilution, which is caused by at-large elections, and gerrymandering that fragments communities of color.

The challenge is to eliminate the blight of voting discrimination once and for all.

Why does it matter to transition from at-large to district-based elections?

Political power is never given away, you have to take it. So that’s what I do. 

I saw that once elections converted to district elections, it made a big difference. In Watsonville it made a big difference, and in Salinas it made a big difference.

King City City Council is considering Tuesday what to do about transitioning to district elections. Are there other at-large elections around here that you think should convert to districts?

They need to do it for [the board of] Monterey Regional Airport. They've got a significant [number of] Latinos there.

The city of Salians switched to district elections in 1989, after you won a lawsuit there. How is the city doing now?

You’re seeing it be more reflective of the community it serves. In the long term, that has a positive impact. That takes awhile, a change in culture, a change in participation. 

It may take several election cycles, but once you achieve that, you’ll have a better community for everyone, not just Latinos. Everyone will have a vested interest in making sure the government resources are distributed equitably and fairly. 

How did you decide to get involved in Salinas?

After 1982 amendments to Voting Rights Act,  we were looking for voting rights challenges. I got a call from [former Alisal Union School District board member and candidate for county supervisor] Jesse Sanchez, who wanted me to consider Salinas. We decided to go with Watsonville, which had a stronger voter polarization at the time.

We filed and lost at the trial court, then won on appeal in 1988. After that I contacted Jesse and we filed suit against city of Salinas.

During that time period, because of the success we are having, many jurisdictions—school districts in particular—started to convert voluntarily. 

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which applied to three California counties, including Monterey County. What's the damage of that court ruling?

It’s considerable damage. The Roberts court is the most anti-voting rights court in the history of the United States.

The reason why we won the Monterey Board of Supervisors case was specifically because of Section 5.

Even with the progress you've made, many voters still feel disenfranchised. Activists with Black Lives Matter and Brown Lives Matter are making it clear that they still don't think the electoral system is fairly representing them. What do you say to the people who say it's not working?

They have to look at the long-term picture. They have to get invested longterm in their communities. The best way of doing that is to make sure they’re registered, and to turn out to vote. And get their friends to register and turn out to vote.

You have to channel that energy into constructive action. It’s harder to do voter registration drives than other kinds of advocacy, but they have to do that.

Especially on issues like climate change, the economy, law enforcement and criminal justice: It’s incumbent upon them to step up to the plate and become attorneys, become judges, become bureaucrats, so they can develop and implement policies that are going to make a difference.

You get people excited or angry enough to register, or run themselves, and they can introduce civility back into government discussions.

You're still actively working on voting rights issues. What's next for you?

I initiated a program, the National Voting Rights Advocacy Initiative, which I am in the process of trying to get funding for. I am working on a case in Yakima, Washington, and a Texas redistricting case. 

I’m trying to get a state voting rights act in Washington, then Colorado, then Arizona, then Texas. So I still have a big agenda ahead of me.

Did you think you'd still be working on redistricting cases in 2015?

No. I thought after the city of Watsonville case was won at the appellate court level, all these other jurisdictions would voluntarily convert. They didn’t.

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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