Fair Voting in California - Will Santa Barbara Join Santa Clarita?

by Drew Spencer // Published August 8, 2014
Beautiful Santa Barbara

In July, the city of Santa Barbara became the most recent in a string of California cities being sued under the California Voting Rights Act for diluting the votes of their Latino population. After finding out about the case, FairVote promptly sent a letter to Mayor Helene Schneider of Santa Barbara, offering our expertise on election methods to them as they decide how to proceed.

Vote dilution occurs when a city conducts its elections in such a way that the city’s racial minority population, even if they are fully able to exercise their right to vote, lacks the ability to actually elect any preferred candidates because of how those votes translate into representation.

The most familiar form of vote dilution occurs in cities that elect city offices at-large by plurality vote. For example, Santa Barbara elects its city council by staggered three-seat elections, in which voters have three votes each. If blocs of voters consistently vote together, that means that the largest bloc will be able to elect every seat, every time. If voters consistently vote along racial lines, that means that the white majority will be able to shut out the candidates preferred by any racial or ethnic minority group.

To succeed at a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act, the plaintiffs will have to prove that voters do in fact vote in a racially polarized way. Given that Santa Barbara is about 38% Latino and yet has elected only one Latino candidate in recent years, it is plausible that voters are voting along racially polarized lines and diluting the votes of most of their Latino population.

Unfortunately, racially polarized voting remains all too common today, and Santa Barbara is only the latest in a large number of cities being sued under the California Voting Rights Act. Some, like Palmdale, have attempted to resist changing their elections to something fairer that would better represent their cities diversity. Most have settled out of court by switching to elections by districts, drawing one district around heavily Latino neighborhoods to ensure that members of the Latino population can elect a representative they prefer.

However, one city in California recently adopted a reform that allows them to empower nearly all voters to achieve actual representation while still retaining at-large elections. In Santa Clarita, the city settled out of court by retaining at-large elections while extending cumulative voting rights to its voters. With cumulative voting rights, minority populations can focus their support behind a favorite candidate, voting only for that candidate, without losing their full allotment of votes. Every voter is still given a number of votes equal to the number of seats elected, but they have the opportunity to put all of those votes toward the election of a single candidate.

As our letter describes, cumulative voting or another fair representation voting method would be a great option for Santa Barbara. By electing candidates at-large with fair voting, Santa Barbara could remedy any alleged vote dilution in a race neutral way, avoid the pitfalls of redistricting, and encourage the equitable election of women.

As we describe in our detailed article for the University of Richmond Law Review, in many contexts, fair voting serves as the best remedy available for vote dilution. The California Voting Rights Act, by correcting some unfortunate court interpretations of the federal Voting Rights Act, opens the door to more easily implementing it as a solution, which is just one reason why FairVote came to its defense when Palmdale fought the Act in court. Santa Clarita has led the way, and we hope Santa Barbara will join them soon.