The City of Malibu and its residents are facing a legal challenge to the way in which members of city council are chosen from the current at-large election system to a by-district system. While city council, under some restrictive time constraints, has opted to allow citizens to determine whether they desire the change through a ballot initiative, it does not come without risks that extensive legal costs could be incurred by the city.
Malibu has now joined a list of cities where challenges to at-large voting systems are being pursued by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, which contends that the current system results in the “impairment of minority groups’ ability to elect their preferred candidate or influence the outcome of elections, which occurs when the electorate votes in a racially polarized manner.” In effect, the city is being sued for violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) of 2001.
If successful, election for city council candidates would be decided in five separate voting districts. The logistical challenges for designing voting districts could potentially be designed by the city council or by the courts.
As a lifelong liberal who has spent over four decades in the public policy, political and governmental arenas, I am steadfastly dedicated to the notion that voting rights must be secured fairly for everyone in the community. I have actively written about and worked toward eliminating gerrymandering, expanding voter registration and opposing voter suppression. I ran for city council in 2018 under the current at-large system and, as a resident of the eastern end of Malibu, might be expected to argue that carving out districts could benefit me personally if I decide to run again. However, as I take stock of the issues and arguments for the current threat of a lawsuit, we need a clear definition of the alleged problems; namely: What evidence is there to suggest that our city council elections are conducted in a racially polarized manner? The latest census suggests that in the city, Latinos represent 6.1 percent of the population; how is that population being discriminated against? Is this group concentrated in one district or distributed across the at-large community and how will moving to districts rectify either real or theoretical discrimination?
As I listened to discussion at our latest city council meeting, I kept asking myself just exactly what was the extent of the problem being addressed? It appears to me that what we have here is a solution in search of a problem, not a sensible nor productive way in which to conduct public policy.
At a time when political divisions within our society are at a fever pitch and faith and a lack of confidence in both governmental leaders and institutions helps fuel rising levels of cynicism, anger and frustration, I am concerned that this might be seen as just another example of political gamesmanship that lies at the root of our problems, not a solution.
Theoretically, I can see some advantages to district voting as well as some distinct disadvantages. While it would make elected officials more responsive to local concerns that otherwise might not be evident in an at-large system, it would also incentivize political tribalism by systematically pitting one community against the other. Today, we need more cohesion and unity to move our community forward, not institutionalized political fiefdoms.
As we look to tackle the major issues facing our community, we need to develop long-term strategic planning, not short-term horse trading. After all, this is a rather small community and we must be looking at the totality of the issues facing us, whether they be transportation, public safety, public works, environmental issues, homelessness or land use and development. I believe what is needed is a community-driven process for making us a model of sustainability and resiliency.
With the current system of rotating mayoral designees among city council, it is a benefit to have individuals who have had to run in at-large elections as far as understanding the problems that affect the community in its entirety.
Once again, if I felt as though we were operating an electoral system that was discriminatory towards minority populations within our city, did not allow for the opportunity to have minority representation in our decision-making processes or contributed to a racially polarized electoral system, I would be an ardent proponent of by-district voting. I simply do not see sufficient evidence that such is the case and, furthermore, the burden of proof must be on those who are alleging these accusations.
Unfortunately, the way in which the CVRA is written places enormous financial disincentives on local governments to prove they are not in violation and incentives to challenge that they are, presenting an open invitation for potentially frivolous lawsuits. I fear that may be the case here.