As cities and counties across the state have recently made the switch from an at-large voting system to a by-district election process in response to a state voting law, the City of Turlock is looking to follow suit.
Although the change would require the approval of Turlock voters in November, the city hopes to establish an electoral district voting system before coming under fire by one of the many Latino activist organizations that have been threatening several California cities with hefty lawsuits for violating the California Voting Rights Act. With the law in place, various minority groups have been able to successfully sue cities for their existing at-large system voting systems, which have been deemed as tools to keep minorities out of local offices.
With an electoral district system advocates believe minorities are more likely to be voted in, creating more equal representation on the local city council, as each member would represent a specific neighborhood from within the city.
While the City of Modesto is the only by-district city currently in Stanislaus County, other nearby cities such as Riverbank, Newman, Waterford, and Ceres are also considering making the changes to a district-based system – a switch done primarily in larger California cities up until recent years. Now, Central California cities and counties are taking the issue to voters in an expedited process, hoping to avoid any impending litigation from minority groups.
According to City Manager Roy Wasden, the City of Turlock began considering the change after receiving a “threat letter” from the Latino Community Roundtable of Stanislaus County that was sent to multiple cities within the region. Although Wasden noted that the Latino Roundtable did not make any threats of potential litigation for not cooperating with their request, the group did encourage the city to make the change as to avoid receiving a lawsuit from another Latino-based group.
“Once you get a demand letter like Turlock received, you’re being put on notice,” said National Demographics Corporation President Douglas Johnson, who has been working with smaller Central Valley cities to make the necessary changes. “It’s a warning that you need to act.”
Although Wasden says the Latino Community Roundtable’s letter did not mention the threat of a possible lawsuit, he expressed that the city could become subject to anticipated litigation at any point, noting the city’s inability to pay any substantial attorney or court fees.
“I’m sure that is money which they would like to reinvest in the public, whether with roads or parks, public safety, or things of that nature,” said Johnson. “Many cities are moving to this model not only because they want to give more Latinos representation by voting in districts based on neighborhoods, but also because they want to avoid the financial burden of a six-figure lawsuit.”
Should the City of Turlock switch to an electoral-district voting system, council members would need to decide by June whether or not to place the matter on the November ballot. If approved, the council would see district elections take effect in 2016.