California’s Voting Rights Act Continues to Force More Local Governments into By-District Elections

In 2011, fewer than 160 California cities, counties, school districts and special districts held elections by district. In 2021, that number exploded to over 500. In 2021 California encountered a redistricting “perfect storm,” as the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) vastly increased the number of jurisdictions moving to districts while COVID reduced the amount of time to complete the redistricting process. While redistricting in 2031 hopefully will not face another pandemic, the number of jurisdictions needing to redistrict after each census continues to rise. In 2031, 700 (or even 1,000) California local governments may need to redistrict.

The CVRA increases the number of by-district jurisdictions by making it very easy for potential plaintiffs to force at-large-election jurisdictions into by-district elections. To date, over 170 cities and towns, over 300 school and community college districts, and over 50 hospital, fire, airport, water and other special districts shifted from at-large to by-district elections since CVRA became law. The majority of those jurisdictions either received legal demand letters threatening litigation, or saw their neighboring jurisdictions receive such letters and knew their time was coming soon. The overwhelming majority of these jurisdictions were not violating any resident’s civil or voting rights, but the massive legal settlements in the few CVRA cases resolved so far forced these jurisdictions to change. As financial payouts from CVRA settlements continue to increase, threats of litigation roll out almost weekly, forcing more and more local governments into by-district elections.

Some wistfully hope that the court case “Pico Neighborhood Association and Maria Loya v. City of Santa Monica in the matter of California Voting Rights” will significantly slow the number of CVRA challenges. In April 2016, plaintiffs in this case sued, alleging that the City’s at-large election system reduces the voting power of the Latinx community in violation of the CVRA. After plaintiffs won in Superior Court and the City won in the Court of Appeals, the California Supreme Court de-published the Appeals Court decision and the case is currently awaiting a State Supreme Court hearing.

But even if the city prevails, this case is unlikely to have as large of a statewide impact as some hope, if any at all. The City could win on the Santa Monica-specific elements of this case. As the League of Women Voters of Santa Monica suggests in an Opposition to Motion to Strike, in Santa Monica, a beneficial ruling for the plaintiff would actually hurt diverse representation in Santa Monica, as the district map remedy endorsed by the trial court would place the plaintiff in one district with three current Latino members of the City Council along with the Council’s only Black member.

Even if the Court rules for the City and finds a more fundamental flaw in the CVRA, there is a strong likelihood the state legislature would quickly follow that ruling with legislation filling whatever hole the Court found in the current law. Given the legislature’s resistance to anything even perceived as weakening the law over the 20 years since the law’s passage, there is strong evidence such legislation would be quickly written and enacted.

And if the Supreme Court sides with the plaintiffs, the current course of districting will not change. In fact complaints and lawsuits will continue to sweep across the state as a legal payout likely in the tens of millions of dollars will encourage plaintiff attorneys.

So, while Santa Monica may or may not be forced into district elections, CVRA is all but guaranteed to remain. While many city councilmembers, school trustees and special district directors may hold out hope for relief, they should not count on the Santa Monica case ruling to change the course of the widespread shift to districts in California.

For jurisdictions still using at-large elections, and for those already by-district but looking ahead to the 2031 redistricting crush in the state, NDC is ready to help navigate these challenges.

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