Many municipalities in the Tri-Valley are being forced to adopt district-based elections or risk being sued, which could result in costs of millions of dollars from a likely unwinnable case.
Governmental agencies including the city of San Ramon, the town of Danville and the San Ramon Valley school district, received letters in late 2018 from Scott Rafferty, a Walnut Creek-based attorney and a longtime proponent of district elections, citing the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) and claiming that at-large voting "dilutes minority electoral influence" in elections.
San Ramon does have an area of segmented population, with Dougherty Valley being predominantly Asian-American. However, the possible problem of under-representation for this group began correcting itself, as was evidenced by the candidates in the 2018 city elections as well as the subsequent election of Sabina Zafar to the City Council.
District-based elections can be beneficial for larger agencies that serve many communities, like Alameda County Board of Supervisors or even the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.
However, forcing geographic subdivision on relatively small areas, especially those without large segmented populations, like Pleasanton, is not necessary; it is counterproductive and will have unintended negative consequences.
First, it reduces opportunities for voters to make their voices heard. When a city or school district is divvied up into sub-areas, most voters will only be able to cast a ballot for a council or school board member once every four years, as opposed to each available seat every two years with an at-large district.
It can also limit the number and variety of candidates by reducing the pool, which can be especially problematic for agencies already struggling to find fresh candidates -- think the recent Pleasanton Unified School District elections with only unopposed incumbents. If there are no candidates from a district, the supervising authority would then consider appointing someone.
We saw what can happen with appointments when the Dublin Unified School District, which is divided into trustee areas, tried to appoint a provisional trustee to fill a seat in December after a trustee resigned. The appointment was overturned and the seat left vacant because of a provision in state law that allows voters to challenge and demand a special election instead.
That petition needed to be signed by 1.5% of voters in the election area. In this case, after districting occurred, only 74 voters from Trustee Area 4 were needed to force a special election, which will cost taxpayers an estimated $60,000 at least.
The threshold is also changed for recall petitions to remove an elected official from local government office. Though the petition percentages remain between 10% and 30% of registered voters, depending on election area size, the number of actual signatures needed can be significantly lower depending on the number of registered voters in a district. This unintended consequence could become very costly.
The CVRA was established to increase the influence of voters from under-represented groups, which is a laudable goal and appropriate when there is a need. We would certainly like to see more consistent diversity among candidates in local elections here.
In the case of the Tri-Valley communities being pressed to adopt district-based elections, however, it has the potential to create divisiveness and more factions, undoing any cohesiveness that has taken hold on the various councils and boards. With the small size of these communities, it's important that the elected officials work for the entire community and all the residents, not just a vocal neighborhood -- which might happen if their re-election depends on catering to that group.
District-based elections just do not make sense for a majority of the agencies within the Tri-Valley and, particularly, for Pleasanton. By forcing district-based elections on agencies for which it doesn't make sense, nobody is benefiting. Except maybe the Walnut Creek attorney.