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Minority voters disenfranchised in Sacramento suburbs? How cities are changing elections

Meet some of Sacramento’s suburban communities

Sacramento is surrounded by a ring of suburban communities, some thriving – others challenged. Here's a quick look at four of them in July 2019.
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Sacramento is surrounded by a ring of suburban communities, some thriving – others challenged. Here's a quick look at four of them in July 2019.

The city of Roseville may soon change how it elects council members, following a trend of Sacramento suburbs switching to “by-district” voting in the face of expensive litigation threats that claim “at-large” elections disenfranchise minority voters.

The Roseville City Council will hear a presentation Wednesday from city staff on district-based elections, which would divide the city into five districts and allow only residents from those areas to elect a council member who also resides in the area. Currently, residents across Roseville can vote among all candidates running for an open position via at-large voting.

Over the last few years, dozens of cities across California with “at-large” elections have been hit with demand letters under the California Voting Rights Act. The letters allege these elections discriminate against minority groups by limiting their ability to elect representation and influence election results.

“We’re aware of a lot of cities in the capital region have begun receiving those letters,” said Roseville spokeswoman Megan MacPherson. “What we want to do is get ahead of it.”

In January, Citrus Heights approved changing its election system to by-district voting after being threatened with a lawsuit from Malibu-based lawyer Kevin Shenkman, who claimed the city’s model disenfranchised Latino voters. About 13% of the voting age population of Citrus Heights identifies as Hispanic, according to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

And last week, the Davis City Council voted to make the switch, after former Yolo County Supervisor Matt Rexroad sent the city a demand letter in July alleging that the “insidious, racially polarized nature of the at-large election system” has prevented Asian American and Latino voters from achieving adequate representation.

Asian and Hispanic residents make up 20% and 14% of Davis’ overall population, respectively, according to the U.S. census. In the last decade, 12 of the 15 council seats up for election in the last decade have gone to white candidates, according to Rexroad’s demand letter.

In Roseville, Hispanics make up 15% of the overall population, Asians make up 10%, blacks make up 2% and Native Americans make up 1%, according to the U.S. census. The city is 69% white. The city has not been served a demand letter, MacPherson said.

In preparation for a possible switch to a district-based election system, the Roseville City Council will also review a city staff recommendation at its Wednesday meeting to hire a demographics firm for up to $30,750 to provide district election services, including creating district election maps.

Millions in settlement fees

The California Voting Rights Act, which took effect in 2003, prohibits at-large elections that prevent minority groups from electing candidates of their choice, or from influencing the outcome of an election, by means of diluting their votes across a municipality.

The reasoning goes that in an at-large election system, non-minority candidates can easily pass over minority-majority enclaves in a city and still win, while candidates from a minority group may struggle to win without broader appeal outside their neighborhood and a larger campaign fund to canvass a whole city.

Since the passage of the state voting rights law, attorneys and law firms have threatened to sue dozens of cities where at-large elections have allegedly disenfranchised minority voters. Between 80 and 90 cities in California have switched to district-based elections in the face of legal challenges, according to Citrus Heights City Attorney Ruthann Ziegler.

For most cities, the cost of fighting a legal challenge is simply too much to be worth pursuing: In 2008, Modesto was forced to pay $3 million after settling a voting rights lawsuit against the city’s at-large elections, and in 2015, Palmdale settled its case for $4.5 million.

Earlier this year, a judge ruled the city of Santa Monica’s at-large elections violated the state’s voting rights law, with the city’s legal fees ranging from $2 million to $4 million.

“When council looks at (this issue) it’s not as a philosophical decision, but as a financial one,” MacPherson said, “because any public agency that has litigated this issue has lost.”

Not ‘one size fits all’

When Citrus Heights voted to switch to district-based elections in January, Mayor Jeannie Bruins said she felt “like we’re being held hostage.”

It’s a sentiment echoed more recently by some council members in Davis, who feel that their town does not have the same degree of racial and economic segregation as other cities hit with voting rights lawsuits.

“There isn’t like the neighborhood you can point to and say, ‘Oh wow, that’s where X live,’ ” said Mayor Brett Lee. “The city is pretty mixed overall, so it didn’t really seem like the intention of the California Voting Rights Act didn’t seem to be a good fit.”

Lee said he is concerned that moving to district-based elections may exacerbate existing NIMBY, or “not in my backyard,” tendencies in the city.

“If I’m focused on my little segment of an already small town … I will feel pressure from my constituents to not accept a homeless services office or housing,” Lee said.

Fellow council member Gloria Partida, who is the first Latina elected to the City Council, said that “anything that will make voting more equitable is a good thing.”

But like Lee, she does not know if the model of district-based elections is compatible with Davis and is troubled that the council “didn’t have more time to look at that more thoughtfully.”

“Voting is the most powerful thing citizens can do,” Partida said. “I don’t think it’s something we should be forced to do in a less thoughtful way.”

Because minorities in Davis are generally more spread out across the city, Partida said, she worries that “districts will actually separate minorities so they can’t achieve a critical mass (because) they can’t rally around a candidate” living in another district.

There are some pluses, Lee said: It’s easier to run as a candidate because it requires less effort to reach out to 10,000 people than reaching out to 50,000, for example.

“But it shouldn’t be a one size fits all thing,” he said.

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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