Under threat of lawsuit, City of Davis revamps council member elections, districts
Under the threat of a formal lawsuit, the City Council of Davis voted unanimously to transition from an at-large voting system to district-based elections on Aug. 13. The months-long transition process is slated to finish on Nov. 5, at which time the city will adopt the ordinance and approve a finalized version of several potential district maps.
Modifying the electoral system will change the way Davis conducts city council elections, according to the city’s website. Under the current system of at-large elections, city council candidates can live anywhere in Davis, and all city residents can vote in each member’s election.
In a district-based system, however, the city will be divided into individual geographic districts, each with its own separate city council representative. Councilmember candidates must live within the district in order to campaign, and only residents of that district can vote in their respective member’s election.
The first election under the new district system will take place on Nov. 5, 2020, according to the city website. Though the next election in Davis will be the March 3, 2020 primaries, city staffers said in a report that the city would not be able to complete the transition to district elections by next March. Consequently, the report recommended that the council should vote to move city council elections to November.
The council’s decision to reform the city’s electoral system was a response to a demand letter sent by Matt Rexroad of Rexroad Law Firm, dated July 1, 2019, according to the staff report. The letter alleged that the current at-large election disadvantaged minority voters in Davis, therefore violating the 2001 California Voting Rights Act.
“Voting within Davis is racially polarized, which has resulted in minority vote dilution,” Rexroad wrote. “Davis minority voters have not had proper representation on the city council because of the at-large election system. Thus, Davis at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act (CRVA).”
The California Voting Rights Act prohibits jurisdictions with at-large voting systems if the court rules that protected groups are disadvantaged in elections. Yet the city appears to disagree with the claim that their current system uniquely disadvantages minority communities in council elections.
Mayor Pro Tempore Gloria Partida was singled out in Rexroad’s letter as the solitary example of Latinx representation on the council in “at least the last 20 years.” In the Aug.13 meeting, though, Partida expressed concern that district-based elections may not better represent minority populations.
“Rexroad claims that our current system dilutes minority vote,” Partida said. “I’m unclear how districts will fix this. Any system in Davis will dilute minority votes because minorities are, by definition, a smaller portion of the population.”
The city’s website further stated that attempts to fight the lawsuit would likely be unsuccessful and could cost the city millions of dollars.
“Not a single jurisdiction has prevailed in litigation under the CVRA; several jurisdictions have paid millions of dollars in out-of-court settlements and all challenged jurisdictions have transitioned from at-large elections,” the site read.
Following the council’s decision to reform the electoral system, the city began the process of conducting several meetings as well as hearing for public comment. The city is also divided up into districts, with the assistance of a demographer and community input, according to the city website.
Ultimately, five prospective district maps were released on Oct. 1, along with demographic data for the potential new districts. The city will release revised district maps on Oct. 15 and will select the final district map in a public hearing on Oct. 22. In the Nov. 5 meeting, the city is scheduled to conduct a final public hearing of this process and adopt an ordinance to transition to districts.
Written by: Tim Lalonde — firstname.lastname@example.org