Carson, Facing Litigation, Considering “District Elections”
Key Public Forums this Month to Determine the Future of Carson Elections
Prompted by legal threats from voting rights advocates, Carson is set to join dozens of other California cities in changing its council elections to a “by-district” system.
There is an important community feedback process currently taking place within the city to shape how these district maps are drawn. The final maps, set to be adopted this Fall, will dramatically change how neighborhoods and communities within Carson are represented in city government.
Larger cities like Los Angeles and Long Beach have used a by-district system for decades in their local elections. Carson, like most other cities of its size, has held “at large” elections in which voters vote for two councilmembers every other year. Those candidates must reside within city limits. A change to a by-district system means the city will be divided into four even-sized districts and candidates for office must live within the boundaries of the smaller city district in which they are running and only receive votes from residents within that district.
The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) of 2001 passed to help disadvantaged communities increase their minority representation in local elections. In May of last year, Carson received a letter threatening a lawsuit alleging a violation of the CVRA. The letter stated, “voting within Carson is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution, and, therefore, the City’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act.”
Dozens of other California cities have received similar letters, many from the same groups that sent Carson its letter. Not one of those cities has successfully fought the threats in court, and those that have tried, have racked up millions in legal costs. As a result, all have either switched to districts or, like Carson, are currently in the process of switching. From a legal standpoint, the City’s hands are largely tied, and it is essentially required to change to comply with the law.
Carson has so far held five informational meetings on the shift to by-district elections. The early meetings were met with criticism from residents. In response, Carson Accountability and Transparency (CAT) partnered with California Common Cause to provide an information workshop detailing the process of shifting to by-district elections and how to keep them fair. Mayor Al Robles, Councilman Jawane Hilton and the city clerk were all in attendance at the CAT workshop and engaged in the conversation with residents, many of whom knew little about the issue or how it would impact their voting rights.
The city has hired a mapping expert to draw several options, and accepted maps drawn by community members. However, only four maps were submitted to the city clerk by the deadline, and some may not meet legal standards for new maps. In contrast, the City of Anaheim reviewed 39 maps during its districting process, finalized in 2016, before the public ultimately selected the one deemed most fair to all communities. Anaheim’s process, however, differs greatly from Carson’s so far.
In Anaheim this process included the creation of an appointed advisory committee of a panel of retired judges. The committee then held 10 public meetings across the city with the city’s demographer present at each meeting to answer questions and provide hands-on assistance in developing district boundary maps to submit to the committee. After months of conducting public meetings, reviewing more than three dozen maps, hearing public testimony from hundreds of residents, and consulting with the city’s demographer, the committee recommended one map to the Anaheim City Council. Other cities have offered online tools to aid residents in submitting maps.
At the Aug. 20 city council meeting, Mayor Robles attempted to increase transparency and community involvement to the process. He tried to release information to the public regarding its demographics that had previously been provided to the council during closed session meetings. Despite the mayor’s efforts, Councilmember Lula Davis-Holmes introduced a motion to “table” the item, which passed 3-2 and effectively killed the proposal.
District Map Workshops Planned to Inform Public
Carson Accountability and Transparency (CAT) will host a workshop Sept. 14 to review the maps being considered by the city. The last scheduled public hearing on district elections is Sept. 17, after which the council can decide on one or more draft maps or choose to go in a different direction. If adopted by the city council, the first by-district city elections for Carson would occur in November 2020, with two new districts up for election. The other two districts would be up in 2022. Councilmembers Jawane Hilton and Cedrick Hicks are due for re-election next year and would likely run in newly drawn districts in November.