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Judge in Voting Rights Case Considers Proposed Order for 7 Districts

On Wednesday Santa Clara’s voting rights lawsuit entered its second phase: determining the remedy for the City’s voting rights violation. County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle announced that this case would have a third phase: an implementation phase where the court has “direct oversight of the implementation of the remedy.”

A proposed remedy order was published in the case on Wednesday morning.

The proposed order would prohibit the City from taking any steps to have an election under the existing system. It also directs the City to adopt the plaintiffs’ seven-district map and submit all the necessary information to hold a November election to the Registrar of Voters by July 23.

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Council Members from three of the seven districts would be up for election in November (with the remaining four to be elected in 2020 using the same map) and, when the new Council is seated, to have that body choose the mayor by a majority vote of Council Members. The proposed order stipulates, “no current City Council Member shall be deemed an incumbent for any of the open seats.”

Further, the proposed order places the City’s elections for the next four years under court supervision.

The Judge has not signed the order, but he indicated Wednesday in court that he intends to issue an order by the end of the week.

 

Witnesses Testify: Change is needed, November Election is Feasible, But City Disputes It

The first day of the remedy hearing focused on feasibility of implementing the seven- district plan, with the City’s legal counsel Steven Churchwell making the same arguments he has previously argued:

  • Attempting to meet the schedule would lead to “grievous errors.” The schedule wouldn’t allow candidates to turn in papers “a day late.” (Candidates cannot submit their filings late under any circumstances).
  • The plaintiff, Wesley Mukoyama, never attended a meeting of the 2017 Charter Review Committee, so how concerned could he really be about the question.
  • The Registrar of Voters was incorrect about the requirements to implement ranked choice voting systems.
  • Implementing districts in other cities wasn’t necessarily the reason minority candidates were elected after voting rights lawsuits. ­­When San Francisco went to districts Asians lost elections because of vote splitting.
  • And, finally, Santa Clara needed an elected mayor because the City has a “billionaire business” — the 49ers — causing problems” within its boundaries.

The court heard lengthy expert testimony from witnesses that included Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters Shannon Bushey and demographics “guru” David Ely, who developed data and districting maps for about 50 California cities — about half of them in voting rights lawsuits — including Los Angeles, Oakland, Pasadena, Whittier and Palmdale.

Registrar of Voters Bushey explained that there are thousands of ballot permutations in every election because voters are in multiple jurisdictions, for example: school districts, supervisor districts, state assembly districts, water districts and community college districts. City Council districts are just one more permutation to add the mix and are nothing that her office isn’t familiar with.

Even district lines that split precincts — a criticism of Ely’s map made by Santa Clara’s demographer — isn’t an insurmountable problem.

All her office needed was the district map and GIS — geographic information system —and address data by July 23 to manage the election. Ely testified that he could provide the information for the City from his laptop in four hours.

Bushey also testified that she had received a standard request from the City to hold a status-quo election as well as a letter on July 5 containing the Measure A two-district map and a copy of the Measure A ordinance “in case there was a court order.”

Being aware of the lawsuit, her reply to the City was “why are you sending me this?” and that she would wait for a court order before taking any action.

Demographer Ely developed the seven-district map the plaintiffs have put forward using standard census, population, eligible voter and precinct data. One type of data that he didn’t use, however, was voter turnout, which was used by Santa Clara’s demographer.

Turnout, he said, “is much less relevant” in a transition from at-large to by-district elections because at-large systems have a depressive effect on voter turnout. So-called “low propensity” voters are virtually ignored in at-large system, he said, in favor of “high-propensity” voters. “It becomes a self-reinforcing mechanism.”

Ely’s method included ‘shoe leather research’ as well: driving around the City, spending time in the neighborhoods and talking to people about their perceptions of their neighborhoods.

Ely also testified that the addresses of current at-large office holders had no place in creating geographic election districts, although it shows up in Santa Clara’s recent six-districting mapping exercise.

 

Disenfranchising Some is Disenfranchising All

Anaheim Mayor pro tem Jose Moreno’s testimony for the plaintiffs provided a change from the arcana of elections and demographics as well as an introduction to an appealing young and energetic politician who has already made his mark on California history.

A Latino and an immigrant, the Harvard-educated Moreno found himself shut out of Anaheim city politics. In 2012, Moreno became the lead plaintiff in voting rights lawsuit that was settled in 2014. A measure establishing by-district elections was passed with 68 percent of voters voting in favor.

However, Moreno noted that the sitting city council was able to “drag out” the change for two election cycles before Anaheim residents got proper representation.

Moreno testified to the community-wide improvements as a result of district elections beyond an “immediate increase in minority representation.” Voter turnout increased to 80 percent, representation on city committees and commissions improved and people were more invested in the city’s overall wellbeing.

District elections also reduced the impact of money in politics, Moreno said, allowing him to beat an opponent who outspent him 10 to one.

He told a story that captured his message. An elderly white woman and conservative Republican in his district had originally opposed by-district elections until she discovered she was living in an increasingly Latino neighborhood.

If in at-large elections politicians don’t pay attentions to Latinos, she told Moreno, then politicians wouldn’t pay attention to her, either. “If [politicians] disenfranchise one group, they don’t just disenfranchise that group,” Moreno said.

The hearing continues Thursday afternoon, July 19 at 1:30 p.m. in the San Jose Superior Court Dept. 5.

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