Santa Clara

Background

In November of 2016, a lawsuit was brought against the City of Santa Clara challenging the at-large electoral system used to elect its City Councilmembers -- an earlier lawsuit was terminated on procedural grounds. The lawsuit alleges that Santa Clara’s election system violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.

In April, the City Council directed the creation of a Charter Review Committee to review the City’s election method and to make a recommendation for electing members to the City Council. On July 10, 2017, the Charter Review Committee approved its recommended plan (“Plan”) to the City Council. On January 30th, the City Council then unanimously voted to proceed with a June 2018 ballot measure.

FairVote California provided research and analysis to the community and to the Charter Review Committee about the effectiveness of various election methods. Over time, the Committee considered at-large elections and various district plans, and determined that Santa Clara was too diverse and integrated for single-member district elections.

According to the 2010 Census, the City’s population is approximately 116,468, of which approximately 22,589 (19.4%) are Hispanic or Latino and 43,889 (37.7%) are Asian-American. According to the latest Citizen Voting Age Population (“CVAP”) 2011-2015 data available from the American Community Survey, Santa Clara City has a CVAP of approximately 69,465, of which approximately 10,635 (15.3%) are Hispanic or Latino and 21,630 (31.1%) are Asian-American. No single race or ethnicity currently constitutes a majority of the City’s population. This is important to reference because the city’s population and electorate are not currently reflected in the City Council. 

It is the position of FairVote California (FVCA) that as applied, the City’s current at-large election system violates the CVRA. 

A Fair Plan for Asian American and Latino Voters

FairVote California studied and assessed a hypothetical two-district plan. We found that the Asian American CVAP could range from 28.9% to 32.5% within each of the two districts (3.9-7.5% points beyond a threshold to elect one seat). Therefore, Asian American voters would have the opportunity to elect one (1) seat per district, for a total of two (2) seats.

FairVote California also considered the applicability of ranked choice voting (RCV) under a modified at-large plan and found the same result: if voters were to elect three (3) City Councilmembers at-large using RCV, the Asian American community would have the opportunity to elect their candidate of choice each election cycle because the Asian CVAP is 30.7% and the threshold to win is only 25%+1.

Latino CVAP ranges from 14.9% to 15.8% in our hypothetical plan. A candidate could reach the winning threshold of 25%+1 with more than half of their support coming from Latino voters, thus making Latinos an important voting bloc.

How Does Ranked Choice Voting Work?

The fairness of voting systems like RCV, cumulative voting, and limited voting rely on the concept of a threshold of exclusion (but let's just call it the "threshold of election"). The threshold of election is 50% +1 in a single member district -- as in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro. Under RCV, the threshold of election declines in proportion to the number of seats up for office. 

# of Seats to be Filled 

Threshold of Votes Necessary to Elect 

 One (1)

 50% +1

 Two (2)

 33.3% +1

 Three (3)

 25% +1

 Four (4)

 20% +1

However, unlike cumulative voting and limited voting -- which have been used in over 300 jurisdictions, and as remedies for minority vote dilution cases such as the one in Santa Clara -- RCV avoids vote-splitting and accommodates more voter choice -- an important feature to consider especially if several members of a minority group are running for office.

Since 2002, there have been 14 attempts by candidates of color to be elected to the City Council. Twelve (12) of those attempts have been by Asian American candidates. In the 2016 election, five (5) Asian American candidates ran for city council -- in those races, two Asian American candidates found themselves running against another minority candidate. Since 2002, there have been three (3) instances where minority candidates ran against each other for the same numbered seat.

Why Two Districts?

It was the decision of the Charter Review Committee to recommend a two-district plan. Initially, the Committee determined that the city was too diverse and integrated for single-member districts, but wanted to abide by the language of the CVRA, so it recommended two districts. 

FVCA analyzed a hypothetical two-district plan with RCV and a modified at-large plan with RCV. We concluded that both are viable options because the Asian-American Citizen Voting Age population remains above 25% in both scenarios, and when electing three seats with RCV the threshold of votes to win is 25% +1, therefore Asian American votes would have the opportunity to elect two council seats. 

We are advocating for adoption of RCV in Santa Clara and support the effort to provide education to voters.

Ranked Choice Voting for All Seats

Further, the measure would allow RCV to be used for offices elected citywide including Mayor, City Clerk, and Police Chief.

Further reading: 

Santa Clara Pursues Ranked Choice Voting Under Threat of Litigation

Making Every Vote Count in Santa Clara

Resources

Santa Clara Charter Review Committee

Handout: Multi-Seat Elections

Handout: Single-Seat Elections

Articles

Lawsuit: Santa Clara Elections Run Afoul of Voting Rights Act

Santa Clara is latest in string of cities sued over at-large elections

From the Blog:

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On January 30th, the Santa Clara City Council unanimously voted to put a measure on the June ballot that will transform how local city council members and city officers are elected. This historic ballot measure will give voters greater choice and a stronger voice. If passed by voters, the measure will amend the City’s charter to create two districts and elect 3 city council members to each using ranked choice voting (RCV). Santa Clara could be the first city in the country since the 1950s to use this form of multi-seat RCV. The mayor, clerk, and police chief will also be elected citywide by RCV.

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Earlier this year a lawsuit was brought against the City of Santa Clara challenging the at-large electoral system used to elect its City Councilmembers. The lawsuit alleges that Santa Clara’s election system violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. In April, the City Council directed the creation of a Charter Review Committee to review the City’s election method and to make a recommendation for electing members to the City Council. 

On January 30, 2018, the City Council unanimously passed a resolution to put the Charter Amendment on the ballot. If the proposed plan is adopted, Santa Clara could be the first California city to use multi-seat RCV. Further, ranked choice voting would also be used for offices elected citywide including Mayor, City Clerk, and Police Chief.

Join the Santa Clara Chapter