Vista weighs moving to voting districts after lawsuit threat

VISTA — Facing the threat of a lawsuit that alleges voting rights violations, Vista will explore creating districts for electing city council members.

A letter from Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman says that the city violates the voting rights of Latino voters by electing council members “at-large,” a system where the whole city votes for candidates, and the top vote-getters win the election.

Shenkman threatened to sue the city if it didn’t voluntarily change the system.

“The system of at-large voting dilutes the ability of Latinos (a ‘protected class’) — to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Vista’s council elections,” Shenkman said in the letter.

Shenkman referred to a Latino candidate for city council in 2016, who lost to two non-Latino candidates, despite overwhelming support from Latinos. According to the 2010 Census, Latino’s make up over 48 percent of residents of all ages.

He also warned of the consequences if the city opts to litigate the issue.

“As you are aware, in 2012, we sued the City of Palmdale for violating the CVRA (California Voting Rights Act). After an eight-day trial, we prevailed. After spending millions of dollars, a district-based remedy was ultimately imposed upon the Palmdale city council, with districts that combine all incumbents into one of the four districts,” he wrote.

A report prepared for the City Council says that based on the input of a demographer, it is “extremely unlikely” the city could successfully defend against a lawsuit that argues a violation of the California Voting Rights Act.

The state’s Elections Code provides a process of four public hearings: drawing the draft maps, at least two additional public hearings, and the adoption of the ordinance that establishes the map and terms for each district.

On March 28, if the council votes to move forward with voluntary change, Vista will hold the first of those hearings, and discuss considerations for maps of the districts.

The most likely scenario is the city divided into four council districts, with the mayor elected at-large. Districts can be divided up by several factors, including neighborhood barriers, like highways and rivers, around shared demographics, or around issue concerns — but whatever criteria is used, the results must be equal in population, not be racially gerrymandered, and pass standards used in the Federal Voting Rights Act.

Escondido was the first city in North County to face such a lawsuit. That city settled the case, and held its first district-based elections in 2014.

San Marcos opted to voluntarily change its process last year, and will hold its first elections in 2018, the same year Vista would, if the council goes through the process.

Mayor Judy Ritter and council members could not be reached for comment.


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