FAQ: District Elections and the CVRA
1. What is the California Voting Rights Act (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. The CVRA was passed by the California State Legislature in 2001, signed into law in 2002 by Governor Gray Davis and effective January 1, 2003. The Legislature believed that minorities and other members of protected classes were being denied the opportunity to have representation of their choosing in local government because of issues with at-large elections. District elections were considered the remedy for “racially polarized voting” where 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.
2. Why is the City considering changing the election process, if it hasn’t been Court ordered?
On April 17, 2018 the City received a letter from a local attorney. The letter states that based on an 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). On May 25, 2018, the City received a second letter from the attorney which withdrew the April 17, 2018 letter and concurrently submitted the second letter in its place. The result was a resetting or extension of the 45-day notice discussed below.
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 July 9) 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.
3. What are other cities doing in response to the 45-day notice?
Approximately 200 other jurisdictions, including cities, counties, school districts and other special districts have transitioned to district elections because of CVRA. Some have been forced and others have voluntarily changed City Councilmember election systems. To date, no city has successfully defended a CVRA lawsuit, although there are cities currently in litigation over CVRA, so that statistic could change.
4. Why haven’t cities prevailed in challenging these allegations?
The CVRA expanded on the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 and lowered the threshold to establish a violation by eliminating two of the four conditions necessary to bring a federal lawsuit. Many cities have been deterred from defending allegations of CVRA violations because of the significant legal costs that have been incurred by other cities.
5. How does the City’s existing election system differ from a district based election system?
The City of Fort Bragg currently elects its five City Councilmembers at-large. Under this voting system, each Fort Bragg registered voter has the 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 Councilmember 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 from their own district.
6. How do districts work and how are they created?
Districts are based on population, not registered voters, so each district would contain around 1,455 residents.
Determining how to draw the districts is part of the process of implementing a district-based election system. The map of districts can be drawn using any number of considerations, including: 1) topography - rivers and other natural barriers or landmarks, 2) geography - such as major streets and blocks, 3) cohesiveness, contiguity, integrity and compactness of territory, and 4) communities of interest – such as established neighborhoods, commercial/business districts, school enrollment, common issues or concerns, voting precincts or other divisions.