The Elk Grove City Council on Aug. 28 took another look at proposed changes to how voters choose council members.
They reviewed the proposed “by-district” election system and agreed to revisit this idea in the future. The Council now has three months to decide whether or not they will change their elections.
Council members are currently elected by voters across the city and each member represents a Council District. Under the “by-district” system, voters will only choose among candidates running in their local Council District.
The Council previously discussed the “by-district” option – Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly advocated for that change while the four council members preferred to keep the current “from-district” system.
The adopted resolution came before the council during their last meeting as a result of a letter sent to the city by Kevin Shenkman on July 15.
Shenkman is a Malibu civil rights attorney known for threatening to sue cities that do not hold by-district elections. One such city, Palmdale, spent about $7 million defending its voting system before finally switching to a by-district system.
In his recent letter to the city of Elk Grove, Shenkman claims that the city’s current voting system violates the California Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 2001. His clients are the Southwest Registration Education Project and Elk Grove resident Andres Ramos, who unsuccessfully ran against now-Vice Mayor Pat Hume in the 2018 City Council’s District 2 election.
It is alleged in the letter that the city’s voting method results in the dilution of the Latino vote in Elk Grove and prevents them from getting candidates of their choice on the City Council.
The VRA prohibits at-large methods that result in “racially polarizing voting,” or a voting method that dilutes the votes of a racial minority group and prevents a particular group from selecting a candidate of their choice.
On Aug. 28, City Attorney Jonathan Hobbs noted that there is no requirement in order to prove racially polarizing voting to show a discriminatory intent.
“The way these are proven is by very, very detailed demographic and statistical analyses,” he said. “So, whether there’s an intent on the council or the city or anyone to discriminate – which I’m not suggesting there is by anyone and I know there’s not – that’s not a required element of these claims.”
The council that night voted to continue reviewing election reform at a later meeting.
Hobbs told the council that by passing the resolution, they could avoid litigation.
“The upside to passing such a resolution is the prospective plaintiffs who sent the letter – the attorney sent the letter on their behalf – they would be precluded from filing a lawsuit against the city for a period of 90 days, while the City Council considers and moves towards a by-district form of election process,” he said.
Hobbs added that although this process could be extended by 90 days through an agreement between the city and the prospective plaintiffs, the law requires that the city “move quickly” to avoid “expensive litigation.”
During the Aug. 28 council meeting, local civil rights attorney Amar Shergill told the council that Elk Grove has been engaging in “institutional racism” through its “from-district” voting system.
“(The) California Assembly says we are; they say that racially polarized voting is institutional racism,” he said. “That’s why they devoted a civil rights act to it, and we are civil rights violators.”
Shergill additionally called for a change in the Elk Grove Planning Commission. He dedicated 30 seconds of his allotted three minutes of speaking time to a moment of silence for the council to “consider our Planning Commission, which has no people of color.”
Following the council’s resolution, the city staff will now begin the process of organizing public meetings on election reform.
The city will also hire a professional demographer at a cost of no more than $40,000. This person will assist with the drawing of proposed Council District maps to make sure that this process will be consistent with the Voting Rights Act.