Background and Introduction
The Exeter City Council has taken action to consider transitioning to a district-based voting system to select its City Council Members, replacing its current at-large election system.
In July 2017, the City of Exeter (“City”) received a letter from Kevin L. Shenkman of the law firm of Shenkman & Hughes. The letter asserts that the City’s current City-wide (or “at-large”) voting system is not in compliance with the California Voting Right Act (Elec. Code § 14025 et seq.) (“CVRA”). The letter demands that the City transition from at-large to district-based City Council elections and threatens litigation if that demand is not met.
Exeter currently utilizes an at-large election system in which electors from the entire city choose each of the five City Council Members. In a district-based election system the city is divided into separate geographic districts, each with one City Council Member who resides in the district and is chosen by the electors residing in that district.
Under Government Code § 34886 and Elections Code § 10010, the process of conversion consists of: two public hearings; the drawing of draft maps; two additional public hearings; and finally, adoption of an ordinance selecting a district map and establishing the process by which staggered district elections will be implemented. If approved, a district-based election system could be phased in over two election cycles starting in November of 2018 with full implementation in 2020. Each district would elect one Councilmember to a four-year term.
On August 22, 2017, the City Council adopted a Resolution of Intention stating that the City will consider establishing district- based elections for City Council members. Under statutory safe harbor provisions, the process of conversion proceeds as follows:
- First public hearing (to be held immediately following adoption of the resolution)
- Second public hearing (within 30 days of First public hearing)
- Release draft map or maps to the public (not less than 7 days before 3rd public hearing)
- Third public hearing
- Fourth public hearing (within 45 days of the release of draft map(s))
- Introduction and adoption of implementing ordinance (adoption must occur within 90 days of the resolution of intention and not less than 7 days after release of final map to be adopted)
In order to stay within the State’s safe harbor protections and avoid potentially costly legal exposure in the event of a CVRA challenge, this process must be completed within a short 90-day window.
Initiating the process does not require that the City convert to district-based elections. The City Council must subsequently adopt an ordinance to accomplish that result. By remaining within the timing constraints of the safe-harbor statute, the City will limit its exposure to potential litigants if it ultimately transitions to district-based voting.
The following tentative schedule has been adopted for consideration of the transition to by-district voting within the safe-harbor window.
|August 22, 2017||Day 1
Resolution of Intention (ROI) – Adopted
|CVRA action cannot be commenced for 90 days|
|September 5, 2017||1st Public Hearing (7:00 PM City Hall)||Re: Composition of Districts
(no maps yet drawn)
|September 12, 2017||2nd Public Hearing (7:00 PM City Hall)
(within 30 days of the 1st public hearing)
|Re: Composition of Districts
(no maps yet drawn)
|October 2, 2017||Post Draft Maps and Potential
Sequence of Elections
|October 10, 2017||3rd Public Hearing||Re: Draft Maps|
|No later than
October 17, 2017
|Post Any Amended Maps
(7 days before 4th Public Hearing)
|October 24, 2017||4th Public Hearing – Select Map
Introduction of Ordinance
establishing district elections,
including District Boundaries and Election Sequence
| Re: Draft Maps
If selected maps is amended,
Ordinance cannot be introduced
until 7 days after amended map is published
|November 14, 2017||Adoption of Ordinance (at a Regular Meeting)|
|November 20, 2017||Day 90||CVRA action may be commenced if Ordinance converting to district-based voting has not been adopted.|
Drawing District Boundaries
The California and Federal Voting Rights Acts (“FVRA”) requires districts to contain essentially equal total populations. Small population deviations are permitted if they are necessary to achieve what the U.S. Supreme Court has labeled “traditional redistricting principles.” These principles include: maintaining communities of interest; creating compact, contiguous districts; or using visible natural or manmade boundaries. A community of interest is a neighborhood or community that would benefit from being maintained in a single district because of shared interests, views or characteristics.
Public input is vital to the drawing of district boundaries. The public’s input is needed to identify “communities of interest” and also to understand how a community wants to be represented: Do the residents of a particular community want that area to be kept together (to be a larger part of a single Councilmember’s district)? Or do the residents want to be divided (in order to have the interest of more than one City Councilmember)?