California City of 180,000 to Provide Cumulative Voting Rights

Released March 12, 2014


CONTACT: Drew Spencer, / (301) 270-4616


The city council of Santa Clarita (CA) last night agreed to settle a lawsuit brought against it under the California Voting Rights Act by agreeing to grant its voters cumulative voting rights. Once implemented, voters will still elect their city council at-large, but they will do so using a fair representation voting method that empowers all voters with a better chance to elect candidates that better reflect their diversity.

"We commend this agreement," said Rob Richie, executive director of the electoral reform organization FairVote. "It's a bottom-ups solution to expanding voting rights for all as a remedy against electoral discrimination."

A group of plaintiffs argued that Santa Clarita’s previous at-large election method, known as block voting, was shutting out racial minority representation on the city council. Block voting is a winner-take-all system that allows a cohesive majority group to win monopoly control over the entire city council. When voting becomes polarized along racial lines, block voting can shut out racial minority representation. Such vote dilution is illegal under both the federal and California Voting Rights Acts.

In most cases brought under the California Voting Rights Act, the city settles by setting up a series of single-member districts. Such districts box in parts of the city with the highest concentration of racial minorities and give them their own representatives. Districts can successfully diversify the city council, but they still shut out the minority viewpoint from within each district and introduce all of the costs and concerns associated with repeated redistricting.

Santa Clarita and the plaintiffs in this case have opted to extend cumulative voting rights in elections to take place in November 2016 as long as the city can implement the system without excessive costs -- a factor FairVote's research suggests will not be a problem for the settlement. Voters will still elect their council members at-large and have a number of votes equal to the number of seats, but they will earn the right to cast more than one vote for a single candidate rather than be forced to spread votes among different people.

Cumulative voting upholds majority rule: the majority can still elect the most seats. However, the effective use of cumulative voting allows minority groups large enough to deserve a seat at the table to put all of their support behind a single candidate and be able to elect that candidate even if the majority votes for other candidates.

Although this represents the first use of cumulative voting in California, cumulative voting has a long history in American elections. In Illinois, for example, it was used to elect the Illinois House of Representatives for over one-hundred years, and remains in use in the city of Peoria.

As FairVote’s staff attorney Drew Spencer notes, “extending cumulative voting rights not only empowers racial minority voters to gain real representation, it can also help to remedy racially polarized voting itself by creating incentives for candidates to reach out to all voters, irrespective of race or where they live.”

FairVote has consistently argued that fair representation voting methods, including the extension of cumulative voting rights, effectively allow racial minorities a fair share of representation while avoiding the downfalls of districting. FairVote recently submitted an amicus brief to the court in the ongoing case against Palmdale, California arguing that fair representation voting is an option for places sued under California law. FairVote previously submitted an amicus brief defending the California Voting Rights Act itself in the Modesto case.

FairVote has also drawn multiseat district plans for all U.S. House seats that underscore the problems with winner-take-all elections for U.S. House elections. FairVote's state plans, which can be viewed in a flashmap and in 50 state page links, would put every single voter in a meaningful election in every state with at least two House seats -- and likely result in shared representation across party lines in every such state as well. Santa Clarita’s decision to show the way forward for cities in California and elsewhere is encouraging for the progress of fair representation voting systems in the United States.

FairVote is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that educates and enlivens discourse on how best to remove the structural barriers to a democracy that respects every voice and every vote in every election. For more information, contact staff attorney Drew Spencer at (301) 270-4616.