What is the CVRA?
The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) prohibits the use of any election system “that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.” Jurisdictions can be sued if they elect their governing body using an at-large, from-districts, or mixed election system. If the court finds against a jurisdiction, the jurisdiction must change its election system and pay the plaintiff’s attorneys, experts, and other expenses.
How is the CVRA different from the FVRA?
The CVRA was adopted in 2002, and is based upon the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“FVRA”) with some important differences that make at-large election systems much more susceptible to legal challenges. For a plaintiff to be successful in a claim of violation under the FVRA relating to at-large elections, the plaintiff must show that: 1) a minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to form a majority of the eligible voters in a single-member district; 2) there is racially-polarized voting; and 3) there is “white bloc voting” (the term used by the courts reviewing such cases) sufficient usually to prevent minority voters from electing candidates of their choice. If a plaintiff proves these three elements, then the federal court will consider whether, under the “totality of circumstances,” the votes of minority voters are diluted by the at-large election system.
The CVRA removes two of these factors. It eliminates what is known as the “geographically compact” FVRA precondition (e.g., can a majority-minority district be drawn) as well as the “totality of the circumstances” or “reasonableness” test. Because the CVRA eliminates some of the elements that a plaintiff must prove, defending a lawsuit brought pursuant to the CVRA is more difficult to defend against than a claim under the FVRA. As a result of the lower threshold for proving a claim under the CVRA, many jurisdictions have voluntarily switched to district-based election systems instead of facing litigation.
Why consider the transition to district based elections now?
Like more than 70 other cities and 155 school districts across the state, the City of Oxnard is starting the process to change how voters elect the City Council. On October 9, 2017, the City received a letter demanding that the City Council elections transition from the current at-large election method to a by-district election method in order to comply with the CVRA. The City Council has decided to take advantage of recent legislation (AB 350) that provides a short window of opportunity to discuss, invite public input and ultimately decide on a district-based election process. That protection requires a City Council to adopt a Resolution of Intent within 45 days of receiving the letter alleging a CVRA violation. Upon adoption, the City Council is provided with an additional 90 days to conduct public hearings prior to adopting an ordinance ordering the transition to district elections (Elections Code Section 10010). On November 27, 2017, the Oxnard City Council adopted a resolution declaring its intent to transition to district-based elections.
What’s the difference between “at large” elections and “district” elections?
Oxnard 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 districts. Voters in each district choose their City Council representative, who must also live in that district.
How have other cities responded to the threat of litigation under the CVRA?
Nearly every other city has changed its election method, voluntarily or by court order. Agencies that have attempted to defend their at-large election systems have incurred significant legal costs. Here are a few examples of the legal costs that other cities paid defending their at-large systems: Palmdale $4.7 million, Modesto $3 million, Anaheim $1.1 million, Santa Barbara $600,000, and West Covina $220,000.
How will creating voting districts affect me?
If approved, registered voters in the City of Oxnard will have the opportunity to vote for a candidate for City Council that lives in their district and for the Mayor, who will still be elected by all the registered voters of the City. Registered voters will not be able to vote for councilmember candidates from districts in which they do not reside.
How many districts will be considered?
At this time, the City Council will be considering maps that include either four, six or eight districts. The specific number of districts to be considered will be determined at a future public hearing of the City Council.
How many council members will be elected?
The City Council will be considering maps that include four, six and eight districts. (The Mayor will continue to be elected separately by all registered voters of the City.) The City Council has not yet made a determination on the number of districts that it will consider adopting as part of a district map. If the City Council adopts a district map, the number of districts in that map will determine the number of Councilmembers that will be elected in the future. The Mayor will still be elected separately by all of the registered voters in the City.
How can I help shape the districts?
The City Council is conducting public hearings to receive community feedback on the proposed districts. Two public hearings were held before the release of draft maps, and at these hearings residents were asked to provide input on potential “communities of interest” to follow when shaping draft district maps. Four additional public hearings and one community workshop are being held after the release of draft maps to solicit feedback on the draft maps. At a subsequent City Council meeting, the City Council will consider an ordinance establishing by-district elections, district boundaries and which districts will hold elections and when.
What draft maps will be considered by the City Council?
In addition to considering specific maps prepared by members of the public, the City Council will also have the option to consider one or more draft maps prepared by the City’s professional demographer.
Will the City Council consider all maps presented by the public or only maps selected by City staff?
Before the maps are released for public review, the City’s demographer will review each of the draft maps to determine if they are population balanced and contiguous. The draft maps will also be reviewed to determine if one or more of the proposed maps fail to meet necessary criteria (examples include wrong number of districts, portions of a district are not contiguous, and the draft map does not divide all of the City into districts).
On or before Jan. 10, 2018, the qualifying maps will be posted on the City’s website and divided into either four-, six- or eight-district categories. The non-qualifying maps will also be posted on the City’s website, and placed into specific categories indicating why the map did not meet the qualifications.
Depending on the volume of maps that are submitted, City staff may recommend a specific number of maps in the four-, six- or eight-district categories for the City Council’s consideration at its public hearings. Alternatively, City staff may simply present all of the qualifying maps to the City Council for its consideration. The City Council will most likely narrow down the number of maps it is considering before making a final decision on which map to adopt. The City Council, however, will make the final determination on which maps, if any, it wishes to consider for possible adoption.
What input will the public have on map selection other than submitting maps?
Once the map are released for public review on the City’s website or before January 10, 2018, the City Council will have four public hearings in which it will take public testimony regarding the draft maps. Members of the public and interested parties also have the option of submitting written comments on the draft maps, including which map or maps they support.
What criteria will be used to select the final map?
Assuming that the City Council chooses to adopt a map and go to district elections, the City Council will consider a range of factors in selecting the final map including (but not limited to) equal population, communities of interest, compactness, contiguity of the districts, visible boundaries, and respect for voters’ wishes and continuity in office.
What is a community of interest?
A community of interest is any distinctive area within the City that has a definable group of people, unique geography or some other distinguishable feature or characteristic that it would be undesirable to divide in the creation of voting districts. Some of these may already be clearly established and others may be defined as a result of this process. This distinction requires strong community input to ensure communities of interest are protected in this process.
How much time will the creator of each map be given to explain each map?
It is up to the chair to determine the amount of time that each speaker is given, but it is anticipated that each speaker will receive a total of three minutes to speak at each public hearing.
If a submitter wishes to present more information, it is recommended that the individual or group creating each map provide a brief written description of each map and specific comments about the map. (See https://www.cityofventura.ca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/10682 for examples of what was submitted in the City of Ventura’s process.) This information will be provided to the City Council and will be part of the public record.
How will written communications and reports be memorialized during the public hearing process?
All written submittals and reports will be provided to the City Council and will be part of the public record. The City Council will consider the public record as part of its determination on the number of districts to consider and how the final district map will be configured, if the City Council chooses to adopt a district map.
How will the final map be chosen?
The City Council will first determine the number of districts and then consider a range of factors if it chooses to select a district map. These factors include (but are not limited to) equal population, communities of interest, compactness, contiguity of the districts, visible boundaries, and respect for voters’ wishes and continuity in office.
What is the timeline for the change?
The districting process timeline is prescribed by the California Election Code 10010.
The City had 45 days from the receipt of the letter dated October 7, 2017 to consider if it desires to transition to election by districts and to adopt a resolution indicating so. The City Council adopted a resolution of intent on November 27, 2017. In order to receive the “safe harbor” protection of AB 350, the City has 90 days from November 27, 2017 to adopt an ordinance transitioning to district based elections for City Councilmembers.
Would the possible recall of the Mayor and three Councilmembers be affected by the districting process?
When will these new districts take effect?
If approved, the new districts would not become effective until the election in November 2018. However, the specific date on which a councilmember will be elected from each of the new districts (i.e., either in November 2018 or November 2020) will be determined as part of the ordinance that adopts the new districts.