District elections

On August 21, 2017, the City received a certified letter from Attorney Kevin Shenkman of Shenkman & Hughes, which alleged that voting within the City is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution and that the City’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. Specifically, the letter alleged that, “Menlo Park’s at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos and African Americans (each a ‘protected class’) to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Menlo Park’s City Council elections.” One remedy for the alleged racially polarized voting is to switch to district-based voting in which the City would be divided into districts and only the voters in a district decide who will represent that district on the City Council.

Background


The City of Menlo Park currently uses an at-large election system in which all voters in the City have the opportunity to vote for candidates for all five seats on the City Council. At the October 4, 2017, City Council Special Meeting, the City Council adopted Resolution No. 6404 declaring its intent to transition to district-based elections in response to Mr. Shenkman’s letter. The City Council also directed staff to explore other voting systems.
                

Impacts on California cities 

      
A number of cities in California have faced CVRA lawsuits since it was adopted in 2001 and not one has successfully defended a CVRA lawsuit brought to mandate district-based elections. City Attorney McClure reported that there is a low threshold for plaintiffs to establish a valid claim under the CVRA and cities are required to pay the plaintiff’s costs if their claim is deemed valid. Due to the significant costs of defending against these lawsuits, the vast majority of cities have voted to voluntarily transition to district-based elections.

Examples of settlements:
  • Anaheim - $1.1 million
  • Hanford Joint Union Schools - $118,000
  • Madera Unified - about $170,000
  • Merced City - $42,000
  • Modesto - $3 million plaintiff's attorney fees and $1.7 million for its own lawyers
  • Palmdale - $4.7 million
  • Placentia - $20,000
  • Santa Barbara - $600,000
  • Tulare Hospital - $500,000
  • West Covina - $220,000 
  • Whittier - $1 million
Switched (or in the process of switching) as a result of CVRA challenges:
  • At least 169 school districts
  • 32 community college districts
  • Over 77 cities
  • 1 County board of supervisors
  • 10 water and other special districts