Voices & Choices

For the first time, a court adopts fair representation to remedy a Calif. Voting Rights Act lawsuit

For the first time, a court adopts fair representation to remedy a Calif. Voting Rights Act lawsuit

This summer has been an important one for the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). The CVRA is a state companion to the federal Voting Rights Act of 1964, created to end vote dilution in local governments in California. Under the CVRA, if a jurisdiction uses at-large elections that result in vote dilution of communities of color, affected residents can bring a lawsuit demanding that they change to something more inclusive.

In Santa Clara, a court found that the city’s use of at-large, numbered posts to elect its city council illegally diluted the votes of the city’s Asian-American population. In July, the court held a hearing to determine what remedy to adopt. FairVote filed an amicus brief, arguing that multi-winner ranked choice voting would provide Santa Clara’s voters with the most representative outcome.

While the usual remedy in CVRA cases is to divide a city into single-winner districts, an independent study by Tufts University researchers determined that they would not be an effective remedy in Santa Clara’s case. Santa Clara’s Asian-American population is well-integrated into the city and not concentrated in any particular area, making it difficult – if not impossible – to draw a district where they would be the majority of voters.

Ultimately, the court decided against ranked choice voting and opted to divide Santa Clara into districts. Nevertheless, to have RCV debated and considered in a CVRA trial was a promising development, particularly since it is not unusual for CVRA suits to be brought by communities that are not easily drawn into majority-minority districts. A proportional remedy like multi-winner RCV (also known as the “single transferable vote”) elections gives all communities an opportunity for fair representation, regardless of where they happen to live.

The week before the Santa Clara court handed down its decision, another CVRA decision offered a more concrete step forward for fair representation voting. The city of Mission Viejo was the subject of another CVRA suit, which alleged that its use of block voting unlawfully diluted the votes of the city’s Latino population.

The city acknowledged that it was in violation of the law and the parties entered into an agreement to adopt cumulative voting for Mission Viejo’s elections. Cumulative voting is an at-large voting method that is also a form of fair representation. While it has some drawbacks when compared to RCV (for example, it still allows vote-splitting), it’s a major improvement over at-large, winner-take-all methods like block voting and numbered posts, and is often used as a remedy in federal Voting Rights Act cases.

Mission Viejo marks the first time a court has adopted a fair representation method as a remedy in a CVRA suit. It is a promising development, one that hopefully leads other courts to consider fair representation methods like multi-winner RCV as remedies in cases where single-winner districts would be ineffective.

Finally, the CVRA itself is being challenged in a federal case brought by the former mayor of Poway. The lawsuit alleges that the CVRA forces local governments to abandon at-large voting methods and unconstitutionally “makes race the only factor” when drawing single-districts. This argument rings hollow since, as FairVote California has explained, the CVRA neither requires local governments to give up at-large voting (as Mission Viejo demonstrates) nor compels them to draw districts based on racial considerations alone. Nevertheless, the case bears close scrutiny because it could have important implications not just for the CVRA but for the law’s ability to protect voting rights generally.

The CVRA is an important tool for combating decades (if not centuries) of systematic discrimination and a defeat in court would be a major setback for voting rights. It is an exciting time for the CVRA, but a perilous one as well.

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