Carson could be set to join dozens of other cities and school districts who have changed to district-based elections in recent years after the city was served with a legal letter accusing it of being in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).
The letter was sent in May 2018 by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, represented by attorney Kevin Shenkman. Shenkman has filed lawsuits driving numerous other cities, including Torrance, to by-district elections and is currently involved in a similar effort in Santa Monica.
The council first discussed the issue at their June 5 meeting. The city had an opportunity to voluntarily change to by-district elections and avoid litigating the issue, but that window may have closed after the council chose not to act on it at their July 5 meeting.
The council’s decision not to act in July is a potentially costly one. While some cities have settled claims out of court by agreeing to shift to by-district elections, others have defended at-large elections through the court system and have incurred significant legal costs because the CVRA gives plaintiffs the right to recover attorney fees.
Cities including Whittier, West Covina and Anaheim have all been forced to settle cases and pay significant legal fees. In 2015, the City of Palmdale had to pay $4.5 million plus interest to lawyers representing plaintiffs who brought a Voting Rights lawsuit against the city.
In 2016, the California State Legislature passed AB 350 to try and protect cities from such lawsuits. The bill provides for a short window of opportunity to discuss, invite and receive public input and ultimately decide if the city should adopt district-based elections. This affords the city an additional 90 days to comply before a lawsuit can be filed, called a “safe harbor.”
At the June 19 meeting, the council referenced a demographic report that had been produced for the City of Carson, and voted 3-2 against making the report available to the public with Mayor Al Robles and Councilman Elito Santarina dissenting. Public information requests submitted for this report have either been denied or are still pending.
What Would District-Based Elections Mean?
A by-district election process means voters within a designated council electoral district elect one City Council member who must also reside in and be a registered voter of that district.
Numerous California cities, including Ventura and Menlo Park, have used the following list of “Pros and Cons” to describe a move to district-based elections.
Each geographic area of the city is represented
Viewpoints that might not be citywide can be represented
Minority candidates (racial or political) have a better opportunity to be elected
Likely costs less to run for city council since citywide campaigning is not required
Each voter has a specific city council member to contact for assistance
Voter’s choice is simplified with less candidates to learn about
City council members may represent only the interests of their districts, not the whole city
Candidates may be elected with few votes
City council members may have divergent views, may conflict with each other
District lines have to be reviewed and possibly redrawn after each census and significant annexation
Best-qualified candidates may be concentrated in one district
Depending on staggered terms, not all voters may be voting each election, reducing overall turnout