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Charter Review Committee’s Proposed Two 3-Member Council Election Districts Doesn’t Give City Safe Harbor From CVRA

Santa Clara’s 2017 Charter Review Committee will recommend to the City Council dividing the City into two election districts with three representatives each. The decision was made at the June 26 meeting.

The committee’s stated goal was to create a safe harbor for Santa Clara in the face of a pending California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit. But whatever benefits might come from creating two election districts, one of them won’t be protection from the voting rights lawsuit the City currently faces.

That’s because the law’s definition of an at-large system also includes “one which combines at-large elections with district-based elections.”

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“The multi-member district proposal is still considered in the same way as the at-large system,” said civil rights attorney Robert Rubin. “Only single-member districts can remove the City from CVRA purview.”

Rubin represents Santa Clara resident Wesley Mukoyama in a voting rights lawsuit against the City of Santa Clara, alleging that minority voters cannot influence city elections because their votes are diluted by the at-large system. Rubin won the first CVRA lawsuit in 2004 against the City of Modesto

Committee Member, Rex McIntosh–a past member of the Hartnell College and Alisal Union School District Redistricting Committees–tried to tell his colleagues that multi-member districts wouldn’t necessarily be a safe harbor. He was also one of the few members of the Committee to favor six one-member election districts.

“I’m concerned we’re going to recommend something to the City Council that hasn’t made it through the courts before,” he said. “It’s a practical point. What has happened over 15 years [is] courts changing to [single-member] district-based elections.”

Acting City Attorney Brian Doyle told the Committee that he couldn’t say what the court might rule about having two or three election districts–the options favored by the majority. “With a charter city it’s a lot harder to tell what a court would do.”

The sentiment of the Committee was against changing the at-large system but in favor of changing the election method to a proportional or instant-runoff system; something that is proposed by Steve Chessin, a member of the Santa Clara County Citizens’ Advisory Commission on Elections, President of Californians for Electoral Reform, and an advocate of proportional voting systems.

No agency faced with a CVRA lawsuit has ever won in court. But they have paid out tens of millions in legal bills.

However, Doyle wasn’t sure that Santa Clara should be constrained by this history. “These [cases] are things courts have decided in vastly different circumstances,” he said. “I think we can defend this lawsuit and win.”

Committee Chair and Parks and Recreation Commissioner Tino Silva agreed, saying that the history of the CVRA shouldn’t be the deciding factor for City decision-making.

“I don’t think drawing districts is going to address the real issue,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to get more minorities on Council because we have districts.” The real issue was the way Council Members were elected.

“Just because we have a lawsuit,” he said, “we don’t have to bend over. A judge must decide if election by district remedies the possible vote dilution. I think the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. Maybe we don’t lose.

“Maybe the judge would say,” he continued, “‘this works in San Francisco because of their demographics. But in Santa Clara, I can’t find or delineate any one part of town that would even address the issue of minorities not being represented on Council.’ People may write, they may find a way to spin this as saying that I want the same-old because of the color of my skin. I would say that was absolutely false. This does not take care of the issue. We are different. We are unique in our demographics.”

“The more you increase the number of districts… the less representative [they are],” said Committee Member Hosam Haggag. “Fundamentally this City is unique, because we don’t have ethnic pockets. I think that proportional systems will be the solution. Increasing the number of districts makes it harder to increase the number of minorities.”

Committee Member Teresa Sulzer disputed this analysis. “The more districts you have the more people are invested,” she said. “I think it would be more vibrant and diverse if we had smaller districts.”

The Charter Review Committee’s next meeting is July 10 at 7 p.m. at the Edinger Room in the Central City Library, 2635 Homestead Rd. The committee will discuss the logistics of changing to two 3-member election districts and “Future Agenda Topics.”

When it was formed by the City Council last winter, the committee’s single assignment was to consider election systems.

Read our previous coverage on the lawsuit here: www.santaclaraweekly.com/2017/Issue-14/santa-clara-hit-with-voting-rights-lawsuit.html

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