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District Elections Explained

The City of Carlsbad received a letter from the law firm of Shenkman & Hughes dated April 5 claiming the city is violating the California Voting Rights Act (Elec. Code §§ 14025-14032) because Council members are elected at-large rather than by districts. Dozens of local government agencies in California have faced similar challenges in recent years, including our neighboring cities of Oceanside, Vista and San Marcos.

First two public hearings scheduled. See the full timeline.

What's Happened so Far 

The Carlsbad City Council voted May 9 to voluntarily move to district elections, taking advantage of a legal protection that enables cities to have a say in district boundaries and avoid costly litigation. 

This protection applies only to cities that pass a resolution within 45 days of receiving a demand letter alleging a violation of the California Voting Rights Act. The resolution must indicate the city’s intent to move to district elections and the plan to make the change. Read the staff report.

Under the resolution passed May 9:

  • The city will hold at least two public hearings within 30 days for the public to provide input regarding the composition of the district.
  • The city will then publish and make available for release at least one draft map of the new electoral districts, including the potential sequence of future elections.
  • Once the draft map has been publicized for at least seven days, the city will hold at least two additional public hearings within 45 days for the public to provide input regarding the content of the draft map and the proposed sequence of elections, prior to the public hearing at which the City Council adopts a map.
  • If a draft map is revised at or following a public hearing, the revised map will be published and made available to the public at least seven days before the city chooses to adopt it.
  • In determining the final sequence of staggered district elections, the City Council will give special consideration to the purposes of the California Voting Rights Act and will take into account the preferences expressed by the members of the districts.

The city has retained Douglas Johnson, an expert demographer, to draw district maps for consideration, according to the requirements of the Federal Voting Rights Act and the California Voting Rights Act.

Background Info

What is the basis for the threatened lawsuit against the city?

The law firm contends the City of Carlsbad’s at-large voting system “dilutes the ability of Latinos, (‘a protected class’), to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Carlsbad’s council elections.” The letter cites three instances where Latino candidates ran unsuccessfully for City Council yet received “significant support” from Latino voters. The letter states that Latinos represent about 13 percent of Carlsbad’s population.

What’s the time frame?

The letter was mailed April 5, 2017. By law, the city had 45 days to voluntarily agree to switch to district elections. That deadline was May 22. After passing the resolution, the City Council has 90 days to adopt an ordinance (a city law) making the change and identifying the districts.

What have other cities done?

Almost without exception other cities have either voluntarily, or been forced to adopt changes to their method of electing City Council members. Many have settled claims out of court by essentially agreeing to voluntarily shift to district elections. Others have defended challenges through the courts. Those agencies that attempted to defend their existing “at large” system of elections in court have incurred significant legal costs because the California Voting Rights Act gives plaintiffs the right to recover attorney fees. A few examples include:

  • Palmdale: $4.5 million
  • Modesto: $3 million
  • Anaheim: $1.1 million
  • Whittier: $1 million
  • Santa Barbara: $600,000
  • Tulare Hospital: plaintiff attorneys paid $500,000
  • Madera Unified: plaintiff attorneys asked for $1.8 million, but received about $170,000
  • Hanford Joint Union Schools: $118,000
  • Merced City: $42,000

Why haven’t cities prevailed in challenging the allegations?

The threshold to establish liability under the California Voting Rights Act is considered low. The Federal Voting Rights Act requires four conditions to be met to prove a city is not in compliance. The California Voting Rights Act only has two.

 How are districts drawn?

Under the California Voting Rights Act, districts must:

  • Include communities of interest
  • Be compact
  • Be contiguous
  • Have visible (natural and man‐made) boundaries
  • Include respect for past voter selections
  • Plan for future growth

What are communities of interest?

A community of interest is a neighborhood or community that would benefit from being in the name district because of shared interests, views or characteristics. Possible community feature/boundary definitions include:

  • School attendance areas
  • City borders
  • Natural neighborhood dividing lines such as highway or major roads and/or hills
  • Areas around parks and other neighborhood landmarks
  • Common issues, neighborhood activities or legislative/election concerns.
  • Shared demographic characteristics, such as:

Similar levels of income, education or linguistic isolation 
Ancestry (not race or ethnicity) 
Languages spoken at home 
Percentage of immigrants 
Single‐family and multi‐family housing units

What is a protected class?

A protected class refers to voters who are members of a race, color or language minority group.

Who creates the district boundaries?

Professional demographers are hired by cities to create proposed district boundaries.

How is the public involved in choosing districts?

The city will hold a number of public hearings and make an online tool available where community members can provide input on district boundaries.  

How is the change approved?

Cities like Carlsbad may voluntarily switch from an at-large election system to district election system via an ordinance passed by the City Council.

What’s the difference between “at large” elections and “district” elections?

Carlsbad has an at-large election system, where voters of the entire city elect all members of the City Council. “By district” election systems carve the city into geographic sections. Voters in each section choose their City Council representative, who must also live in that district.

What questions remain?

At this time, there are a number of unknowns, including whether or not the mayor would remain “at large,” how districts would be phased in and many other questions.  As more information is available, it will be posted to this web page.

Source Documents

California Voting Rights Act
California Voting Rights Act “Safe Harbor” provision 
Federal Voting Rights Act
April 5, 2017 “demand letter” alleging violation of the California Voting Rights Act
May 9 staff report recommending a resolution to change to electing City Council members by district