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Santa Cruz Challenged Over Voting Inequality

Alleging racially polarized elections, Santa Barbara law firm eyes possible settlement

Santa Cruz County election workers adjust an electronic voting machine before the 2016 election. PHOTO: CHIP SCHEUER

Last year, Keshav Kumar was a junior policy analyst at the Santa Cruz County Business Council researching city issues and scouring California news outlets for topics affecting the state’s communities.

Kumar spotted a troubling trend. A spate of legal challenges were cropping up against local governments over their election systems. The threats took aim at cities with at-large elections, in which voters may support multiple candidates on their ballots in local city council races.

The plaintiffs behind these notices of violation were claiming that such elections diluted the votes of Latino voters and reduced Latino representation, in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. Law firms were challenging cities to implement district elections, which means dividing up a city into geographical voting blocks with one city councilmember per district.

Kumar quickly realized that no city had ever prevailed in a legal challenge under the California Voting Rights Act—and when cities fight the lawsuits, instead of settling, they can end up paying fees totaling more than $30,000. Dozens of California cities, including Watsonville, have made the switch either as a result of legal action or under the threat of it.

That’s why Kumar applied to join the Charter Amendment Committee, which the Santa Cruz City Council established last year to look at possible changes to the city’s election set-up. One idea for the committee to study: switching to election districts.

The Charter Amendment Committee, which had just two meetings, has now essentially landed in government purgatory. The council never officially killed the committee, but the group hasn’t met since November of last year, before Santa Cruz’s new city councilmembers took office. Now, a Santa Barbara-based law firm has hit the city of Santa Cruz with a notice of violation over its at-large elections, alleging that they haven’t adequately represented the town’s Latino community, which makes up 20.6% of the population.

The threat leaves Santa Cruz with a potentially difficult decision. The already fiscally strained city can settle, pay the fee and decide on a plan to implement district elections. Or it can get ready to go to court—which could result in a lengthy, expensive legal battle—and attempt to be the first city to win such a case. If Santa Cruz were to lose, a judge could demand that Santa Cruz make whatever electoral changes he or she chooses.

“I feel like the boy who cried wolf, except that, every time, I really did see a wolf,” says Kumar, who now works as the public affairs coordinator for the California Apartment Association. “And now other people are seeing the wolf, too.”

City Attorney Tony Condotti’s office won’t comment on the pending legal matter. As of press time, the City Council was expected to discuss the item in closed session on Tuesday, Aug. 13.

One question going forward is whether district elections would actually improve representation for the Latino community.

Pedro Hernandez, senior policy coordinator for nonpartisan voting rights group Fair Vote, says his San Francisco-based organization has studied the demographics of Santa Cruz’s Census tracts. Because the town’s Latino population is spread across various neighborhoods, he says, it would be impossible to draw the boundaries of any district with a significant Latino electorate.

Instead of switching to election districts, Hernandez thinks changing to another system, like ranked-choice voting, might have a bigger impact on improving elections and representation. He hopes that the city of Santa Cruz explores changing to a format like that as part of its settlement. But it wouldn’t only be the City Council’s call to make.

Part of a possible decision would be up to a legal team that includes UC Santa Barbara economics lecturer Lanny Ebenstein. Ebenstein is president of the California Voting Rights Project, which is involved with the notice of violation against the city. The Voting Rights Project already issued a legal challenge to Santa Cruz City Schools that prompted the school district to switch to district elections earlier this year.

Ebenstein has a tough time imagining the team would settle for ranked-choice voting, or anything less than an agreement that includes district elections.

“I don’t think so. I should never say never about the possibility of any other approach, but the California Voting Rights Act is pretty specific about districts as the remedy,” he says.

The deadline for the city to issue its first response to the plaintiff would have come up in about a week, after a 45-day window closed. But because many city employees were on vacation last month, Ebenstein says the legal team has granted an extension, giving Santa Cruz until Sept. 30 to respond.

Part of what frustrates Kumar about the fiasco is that the City Council has left the Charter Amendment Committee in limbo.

In January, four councilmembers—Chris Krohn, Sandy Brown, Drew Glover, and Vice Mayor Justin Cummings—expressed interest in adding new members to the committee. When their colleagues and some committee members, like Kumar, pushed back against that idea, the council put a stay on any future committee meetings and tabled the item, signaling that it would revisit the concept after a more in-depth discussion about adding new members.   

The item never came back. Kumar met with both Cummings and Krohn, asking them to reinstate the committee. He didn’t even care anymore if the council added new members, he says. If the body had remained active, Kumar argues that the committee might have already finished important legwork of working through possible election changes—work that City Council and staff may now be forced to rush through on a shortened timeline.

If nothing else, Kumar hopes that the council considers officially killing the committee, so that its members can meet again on an informal basis.

Hernandez, of FairVote, says it’s “unfortunate” that the committee did not move forward. At this point, the city may not have time to look back.

“It’s really up to the City Council right now to decide how it wants to move forward, because it seems like there is a ticking clock,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that all the options are off the table, but it does mean they are going to have to make a decision about their next step soon.”

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