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The Legacies of Exclusion: Asian Americans and the California Voting Rights Act


A quiet revolution has spread throughout California. Since the California Voting Rights Act became law in 2001, 170 cities have transitioned from at-large to by-district elections, where voters in a geographic district elect one city council member. This thesis evaluates the effectiveness of the California Voting Rights Act on Asian American political participation and representation in local elections. I begin by tracing the roots of discrimination against Asian immigrants and exploring the construction of the pan-Asian identity. I examine the legacies of exclusion on Asian political participation and representation in political offices. I analyze Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the impetus for the CVRA’s enactment, which lowered the legal standards to prove a violation. The CVRA’s legal remedies for minority vote dilution evolved to match California’s unique demographics as a minority-majority state. I conduct one case study on the City of Santa Clara, which is the only city to go to trial against Asian American plaintiffs. I found data on seventy California cities with above a 20% Asian population and identified each city’s electoral system and Asian city council members. I argue that the context matters when evaluating the effectiveness of the CVRA and by-district elections. While the CVRA has done significant work in dismantling the minority vote diluting effects of at-large elections, it employs too little discretion in switching from at-large to by-district elections. Switching from at-large to by-district elections should be done intentionally and deliberately while considering and preserving communities of interest. The CVRA remains important legislation for Asian communities as barriers to political empowerment persist. The California Voting Rights Act takes a significant step forward in the fight for Asian American representation and participation at the local level

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This paper was published in Scholarship@Claremont.

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