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District Election Background

The city 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. 

Questions & Answers

How will the transition happen?

Districts one and three were up for election first, in 2018. Districts 2 and 4 are up for election in 2020. City Council members serve four year terms. The mayor is elected citywide.

What was 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 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 same 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. Residents can suggest boundaries on a map or provide suggested criteria for creating boundaries, beyond what is legally required.

How is the change approved?

Since the city decided to make this change voluntarily, the City Council gets to decide on the final maps instead of a judge.

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.

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