This city is proud of its diversity, but a lawyer says it blocks Latinos at the ballot

Here are the changes coming in how we vote in Sacramento

Sacramento is one of five counties that will be testing a new voting system, starting with the June 2018 primary. All registered voters in these counties will automatically be sent a ballot 28 days prior to Election Day. Voters will be able to return their ballot by mail, deliver it to a drop-off location, or cast it in-person at any vote center in the county. Here's more:
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Sacramento is one of five counties that will be testing a new voting system, starting with the June 2018 primary. All registered voters in these counties will automatically be sent a ballot 28 days prior to Election Day. Voters will be able to return their ballot by mail, deliver it to a drop-off location, or cast it in-person at any vote center in the county. Here's more:

Elk Grove is unique for its diversity - no major ethnic group has a majority, and each one has sizable populations in the middle-class suburb.

But a Malibu civil rights attorney alleges that racial harmony eludes the city at the ballot box.

In a letter sent to the city last month, Kevin Shenkman said that Elk Grove's election system disenfranchises minority voters. Elk Grove uses a system that allows residents to vote for all four district council members, but each member must represent a specific geographic area in the city.

Elk Grove currently has three Asian American members out of five seats - the fifth is the mayor, elected citywide - though Asian Americans comprise only 28 percent of the population.

"Elk Grove's at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos (a "protected class") - to elect candidates of their own choice or otherwise influence the outcome of the City's Council elections," the letter reads. "Given the historical lack of Latino representation on the Elk Grove City Council in the context of racially polarized elections, we urge Elk Grove to voluntarily change its at-large system of electing City Council members."

City spokeswoman Kristyn Nelson said in an email the city received the letter and is reviewing the matter.

Councilmember Darren Suen said he often casts votes that affect the whole city, so he feels it's fair the whole city gets to hold him accountable.

"I go and visit the east side and the rural area just as much as the west side," Suen said. "I know they can choose to vote against me as well based on my decisions... in that regard, it's a check and balance."

Shenkman is armed with the 2002 California Voting Rights Act, which outlaws at-large elections that can be proved to disenfranchise minority voters. Faced with the threat of lawsuits, local governments across the state have begun switching from at-large to by-district elections.

The argument is that even if a certain ethnic group has a plurality in a city, it can still be shut out of council seats by blocs of highly mobilized voters if the whole city is allowed to vote on every seat.

That impact is reduced when each council district has its own contest and voters from another neighborhood cannot participate.

Woodland switched to geographically-based districts in 2014 when leaders were advised the city could face legal problems. Latino residents at the time comprised half of Woodland's population but only one-fifth of the City Council. Unlike Elk Grove, Woodland previously didn't require each council member to live in separate areas of the city.

The 2016 election flipped the council from majority white to majority Latino.

Elk Grove is highly diverse. According to city data, 35.5 percent of residents are white, 28 percent are Asian, 18.2 percent are Hispanic, 11.4 percent are black and 5.5 percent identify as multiracial. The balance are American Indian, Pacific Islander or other.

Suen said the census data shows that the city is pretty well integrated - minority communities aren't isolated into "pockets."

When the council appointed Stephanie Nguyen last February to fill the seat vacated by Steve Ly when he became mayor, it created the Sacramento region's first Asian American majority on a City Council.

It's not the first majority Asian American council in the state, but it appears to be the first in a city where Asian Americans are not a majority of the population.

Suen pointed out that it took until 2014, 14 years after the city's founding, for an Asian American to get elected to the council. And all three are of different ethnicities, he said. Ly was the first U.S. mayor of Hmong descent.

Two of the three Asian Americans on the council were originally appointed to their seats, though District 1's Suen later won election to serve another term.

During the public hearing in which Nguyen was appointed, multiple speakers criticized the from-district system as preventing minority, underfunded candidates from mounting serious challenges to incumbents.

Mindy Romero, director of the UC Davis California Civic Engagement Project, said the crux of lawsuits against at-large election systems is the ability of sizable minorities to influence election outcomes, though influence is not well defined in the law. A lawyer has to prove that converting to by-district elections would change the dynamic enough that a candidate from an underrepresented group would reach the dais.

"If the group is very, very small and they wouldn't have an opportunity even in district elections to viably have their candidate have a chance, that's a different story," she said. "The key marker is whether they could influence the election."

Shenkman said his criticism of the Elk Grove system is primarily about the level of Latino representation on the council. Elk Grove has had one Latino council member since the city's founding in 2000.

In his letter to the city, Shenkman argues that since 2002, three Latino candidates have run for the District 4 seat, which represents central and southeast Elk Grove. All three had significant support from the Latino community but lost their races, he writes. The area is currently represented by Nguyen.

Shenkman is well-versed in the California Voting Rights Act. He first made a name for himself when he successfully sued the city of Palmdale in 2012. Since that case, he's won all of the approximately dozen lawsuits he's brought against cities for their election practices.

No city with an at-large election system has won a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit, according to the League of California Cities.

"We've been responsible for the conversions of many more (jurisdictions) through voluntary action whether it's in response to our correspondence or otherwise," Shenkman said.

His team has been doing this type of work for about six and half years, focusing on school districts, community college districts, community services districts and water districts, as well as city governments throughout Southern California.

He said Elk Grove residents drew his attention to the city's election system, but he declined to name them.

His team has encountered a couple other jurisdictions that elected members in ways similar to Elk Grove, including the Santa Clarita Community College District and the Newport Mesa Unified School District in Orange County.

"It's more dilutive than your typical at-large," system, Shenkman said. "It prevents even a minority-preferred candidate from sneaking in as the third choice."

In an at-large system, where the top two or the top three vote-getters win seats, a concerted effort on behalf of a minority candidate can push them into the top positions.

The outcome of the lawsuits in terms of representation has been mixed, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times. Of 22 cities that moved to by-district elections as of June 2016, only seven saw a gain in Latino council members.

Romero said it's still a little early to see the full impact of the electoral changes. She said there's been an increase in minority candidates winning elections, but other barriers to participation such as money or information gaps remain.

​Jill Lavine, registrar of voters in Sacramento County, demonstrates a new digital voting system at the Sacramento County Department of Voter Registration and Elections on Monday, March 5, 2018 in Sacramento.

Ellen Garrison: (916) 321-1920, @EllenGarrison

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