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Malibu voters should look out for one major local item on their November 2020 ballots. On Monday, Jan. 13, city council members voted, 5-0, to declare the city’s intent to include a binding, district-based voting option in the upcoming elections.

In a letter dated Oct. 25, attorney Milton Grimes threatened the City of Malibu with litigation under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) of 2001. The letter, officially received by the city clerk’s office on Oct. 28, alleged Malibu’s at-large voting system violated the CVRA and called for the city to adopt district-based elections. 

According to Grimes’ letter, Malibu’s at-large voting system dilutes the ability of Latinos to elect their preferred candidates or influence city elections. According to census data, Malibu residents of Latino/Hispanic origin made up 6.1% of the population in 2010. The most recent numbers estimate 8.7%.

“Voting rights advocates have targeted ‘at-large’ election schemes for decades, because they often result in ‘vote dilution,’ or the impairment of minority groups’ ability to elect their preferred candidates or influence the outcome of elections, which occurs when the electorate votes in a racially polarized manner,” Grimes wrote in the letter. 

A transition to district-based elections would be a significant change for Malibu, affecting how city council would look moving forward, according to Assistant City Attorney Trevor Rusin.

“While this wasn’t brought to the city in a way that we prefer, and our hand was forced in terms of dealing with this issue, it’s an important issue,” Rusin said. “And whether we move to districts is a subject that deserves the attention of the whole community.”

Resident Norm Haynie said he was against districting and called the process “polarizing.”

“I want everyone that runs for City Council to be concerned about everyone’s vote throughout the entire city in order to be elected,” Haynie said. “I don’t want them concerned about only the items in their particular district in order to gain the vote from that district.”

Longtime planning commissioner John Mazza, speaking as a Malibu resident, told council members not to waste its money hiring a demographer and putting districting on the ballot because the people of Malibu will vote against it. 

“Just go along with it, be done with it, district,” Mazza said.

Grimes, working in conjunction with Malibu resident and attorney Kevin Shenkman, has sent similar letters threatening lawsuits to dozens of cities across the state. To date, they have not lost a single case. Cities that choose to fight the lawsuits risk hefty legal fees. Palmdale spent approximately $7 million defending its losing position, according to reporting by the Los Angeles Times. 

Most recently, the City of Santa Monica also lost in court and now faces $22.3 million in legal fees. According to Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office Special Counsel George Cardona, the city has appealed that decision, and is awaiting a response from the Court of Appeals. 

Shenkman said he hopes the council will take what happened in Santa Monica to heart.

“The scoreboard right now remains about 30 to zero,” Shenkman said.

Mayor Karen Farrer said this was a very sad day for Malibu.

“It’s really sobering to see this kind of leverage taken against us—and by a resident. It, in my opinion, is a tragedy,” Farrer said.

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