California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA)
The City of Fort Bragg currently elects its five City Council Members at-large. Under this voting system, each Fort Bragg registered voter has the right and opportunity to vote for all open City Council seats in a City Council election. For example, under the current voting system, voters will have the opportunity to vote for three candidates for the three open City Council Member seats in November, 2018. Under a district-based election system, voters within a district have the opportunity to vote for only one candidate running for City Council within their district.
On April 17, 2018 the City received a letter from a local attorney. The letter states that based on a thorough investigation and analysis of demographic and electoral information concerning past Fort Bragg elections, the represented Committee believes the City’s current at-large election system may violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA). The CVRA expands on the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and makes it easier for minority groups to successfully sue and eliminate at-large election systems. Under the CVRA, minimal evidence of racially polarized voting can result in a court order requiring a city to change from an at-large to district-based voting. “Racially polarized voting” occurs when there is a difference between the choice of candidates preferred by voters in a protected class and the choice of candidates preferred by voters in the rest of the electorate.
The local attorney’s letter points out that none of the California jurisdictions with at-large voting systems that have been charged with alleged violations of the CVRA have prevailed in court action. Under the CVRA, the prevailing plaintiff is allowed attorney’s fees, which have, in some cases, reached into the millions of dollars.
More recent legislation created a “safe harbor provision” to protect jurisdictions from CVRA litigation costs and attorneys’ fees. Under Elections Code Section 10010, a prospective plaintiff must send the clerk of the city a written notice asserting that the City’s election process may violate the CVRA. If, within 45 days of the city receiving this notice, the city adopts a resolution outlining its intention to transition from an at-large to a district-based election system, the potential plaintiff is barred from suing the city for 90 days after the resolution is passed. So long as the City implements district-based elections within those 90 days, the legal fees that a prospective plaintiff can recover are capped at $30,000.
If Fort Bragg does not declare its intent to change the election system within 45 days (or by June 1st) and fails to adopt the change within 90 days of declaring its intent, it is subject to litigation and the prospect of paying the plaintiff’s attorney’s fees and costs that may reach well into the six and seven figures.
Setting up small electoral districts in Fort Bragg may not actually serve the purposes set forth under the CVRA - to ensure there is more opportunity for minority group representation. On the other hand, defending a challenge to this action could likely cost the City a substantial amount of money. The City Council is faced with a very difficult decision. It is critical that they get as much public input on this issue as possible. Your civic participation is greatly appreciated.
A special City Council meeting is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, May 2, 2018 at Town Hall to discuss this matter, receive public comment and for City Council to provide staff direction. To submit your comments in advance of the special City Council meeting, email the City Clerk, June Lemos, at firstname.lastname@example.org