by Kerri Brenner, Marin Independent journal
San Rafael may be the next target of a legal challenge demanding the city switch from at-large elections for City Council seats to district elections in order to avoid what the potential challenger calls “racially polarized voting.”
However, city officials say there is no evidence to support a claim of discriminatory elections in San Rafael. Also, they say the city has been actively pursuing collaboration with its Latino community to encourage diversity on the council and city boards and commissions for at least two years.
“We absolutely want more diverse representation in the city,” said Councilwoman Kate Colin, who heads the Latino Civic Leadership Initiative, a task force formed in 2015. “We believe the most successful way to do that is collaboration with the community.”
Kevin Shenkman, of the Malibu law firm Shenkman & Hughes, said Friday he was in the final stages of reviewing a letter he will be sending to San Rafael, likely in the next week or so. The letter, similar to those already sent to Menlo Park, Santa Rosa and several other California cities, will claim that the city’s at-large elections — where all voters in the city elect all council members — violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
The letter will demand the city take steps within 45 days to switch to district elections — in which voters who live in the district vote only for the council candidates who live in that district. If the city does not take that action, Shenkman says, the law firm could sue the city.
“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,” Shenkman writes in the Menlo Park letter, which has some of the same wording that will likely be in the San Rafael letter. According to the letter, Shenkman is representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
In a phone interview, he said that “vote dilution” results in so-called “polarized voting,” which he defines as a situation where one racial majority or ethnicity votes one way on a set of choices, while a racial minority or ethnicity votes for a different, usually opposite, set of choices.
San Rafael City Attorney Rob Epstein said he has not seen any evidence of such practices in the city, which has had at-large elections for more than 100 years. The city has never had a Latino candidate for council, and the task force is looking to encourage such candidates to come forward for the 2020 elections.
“We embrace the diversity in our community,” Epstein said. “The city very much wants to see the diversity in boards and elected officials, and is working actively to make that happen.”
Epstein said his office investigated the issue more than two years ago when Shenkman’s firm sued the city of Palmdale in Southern California under the Voting Rights Act. The case was settled in 2015, and Palmdale was forced to change to district elections.
“It is our understanding that in other cities where this issue has arisen — such as Palmdale — there has been an active push from the minority community to change the election format,” Epstein said. “Significantly, so far as the city is aware, none of the minority communities in San Rafael have sought a change to San Rafael’s at-large elections.
“For these reasons, we think it unlikely that anyone would pursue a Voting Rights Act case in San Rafael,” he added.
“San Rafael has no history whatsoever of what the statute calls ‘racially polarized voting,’ as there had been in Palmdale, and other cities where minority candidates have lost contested elections, despite a substantial minority population,” Epstein said.
Omar Carrera, executive director of the Canal Alliance in San Rafael, said he supported efforts to increase diversity “at all levels” of civic activity, but he was not ready to endorse any specific elections method.
“It’s too soon for me to criticize, when I’m not really understanding all the ins and outs,” he said Friday. Carrera said he is participating in the city task force because he believes “it’s important to engage.”
“I do agree there’s a lack of representation,” Carrera said. “Whatever the solution is, we really need to have more diversity at all levels — that should be the goal.
“We need to find the best strategy to get there,” he added.
The Canal Alliance, for its part, is conducting naturalization workshops so that people with green cards can become citizens and thus be able to vote and be more active in civic engagement, Carrera said. “That’s our contribution to it.”
COSTS LIMIT FIELD
The San Rafael City Council has recently had two election cycles — including the current one — where candidates were uncontested. Jonathan Frieman, a San Rafael resident who supports social justice causes, says minority candidates are discouraged from running a race at-large because of the cost. He estimates an at-large run could cost as much $100,000, while a district election might cost around $10,000.
“It would be a lot cheaper, and people would be more excited to run because they would have a chance,” he said of switching to district elections. He said he thinks it’s time to have a Latino council member because an estimated 30 percent of the city population — or about 17,000 people — are Latino, many living in the Canal area in the eastern portion of the city.
“We do need equitable representation,” he said. “San Rafael is growing and changing and we need more involvement (from that sector).”
Colin said she doesn’t think a legal remedy such as switching to district elections is “the right tool” to encourage diversity. The task force has scheduled a forum in January to further discuss election strategies for minority communities in the city, she said.
“I believe what we’re doing is the most cohesive way to get there,” Colin said. “We’re doing it in an appropriate way that reflects San Rafael values — collaboration is the way to go.”