Elk Grove could soon vote for council members by district after receiving legal threat

More than a year after receiving a legal threat that alleged Elk Grove’s election system disenfranchises minorities, the city may soon use by-district voting for its city council races – a switch that cities across the region have also made to prevent potential litigation.

The Elk Grove City Council approved a vote declaring its intent to shift to a by-district model late last month, meaning residents of a district will soon only vote for candidates who also live in the area. Elk Grove currently uses a from-district system, where candidates must live in a particular district but are elected by all voters across the city. By-district elections could be held as early as 2020.

In February 2018, a Malibu civil rights attorney sent a demand letter to the city threatening to sue under the California Voting Rights Act, arguing the city’s current election 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 attorney, Kevin Shenkman, sent a follow-up letter in July, noting that two Latino candidates ran and lost during the 2018 city council election. “The lack of diversity on the City Council, as perpetuated by the City’s at-large election system, exacerbates the racial tensions in the City,” he wrote.

The California Voting Rights Act prohibits public agencies from using at-large elections if they limit the ability of a minority groups from electing representation. More than 250 public agencies, such as school boards, water districts and municipalities, have switched to district-based elections in the face of litigation.

No city has ever successfully defended an “at-large” system, with some paying millions in legal fees. The city of Palmdale agreed to pay Shenkman’s firm more than $4.5 million as part of a settlement in 2015.

City councilmembers across the Sacramento region have been reluctant to move to district-based elections, arguing that majority-minority enclaves typically don’t exist in their suburbs, and that at-large voting makes officials accountable to the entire city.

Just this year, the cities of Davis, Citrus Heights and Roseville have all voted to switch to district-based elections rather than wage an expensive – and likely losing – legal battle.

City staff estimates moving to district-based elections will increase future election costs in Elk Grove by about $36,500 to produce separate ballots for districts.

The Elk Grove City Council also approved spending $40,000 on a demographer to help the city review and redraw existing districts during its August meeting.

The council will host several public hearings to receive feedback from the community on the composition of the districts. The next hearing is set for Sept. 25.

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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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