Elections for Loma Linda City Council members will likely become dramatically different after a lawyer called the city’s election system “racially polarized” and threatened litigation.
Voters currently elect councilmembers at-large, which means every voter gets to weigh in on every candidate. That system, lawyer Kevin Shenkman told the city in a letter received May 31, results in minority vote dilution and therefore violates the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.
With no discussion in open session the council on Tuesday, June 28, voted unanimously to spend $30,000 for legal services and up to $30,250 to develop and implement a representative plan for voting districts so equal portions of the city will get to elect one council member each.
Some agencies have fought back after similar challenges, but “the courts have consistently found in favor of the district format to reflect minority representation on elected boards,” staff told the council in a written report.
In the six years leading up to 2020, 151 cities in the state had shifted to district elections.
In 2015, Palmdale paid $4.7 million to settle a lawsuit Shenkman filed, and as of this month Santa Monica has spent more than $8 million on litigation that was also initiated by the Malibu lawyer.
Closer to home, the Highland City Council was sued by Shenkman and a Superior Court judge ordered the city to abandon citywide elections in favor of district-based elections. The city held its first district-based election in 2016.
Yucaipa established district-based elections in 2016 to avoid being sued like neighboring Highland.
Cities up and down the state have been sued or threatened with lawsuits, including Modesto, Compton, Whittier, Escondido, Orange, Cypress and Desert Hot Springs.
In Redlands the City Council decided to switch to a district-based election system in 2016 after an advocacy group threatened to sue for violating state voting laws. The council, however, had already been working to bring its elections into compliance with the state. Redlands’ first by-district election was held in 2018.
It’s not just cities that have been shifting election formats in recent years.
The Redlands Unified School District, which serves several cities including Loma Linda, also made the change to by-district elections in 2016.
In his letter to Loma Linda, Shenkman notes U.S. census data shows Latinos comprise 23.2% of the city’s population and Asians 27.3%, “yet, at least in recent history, the City’s governing board has been devoid of Latinos, and nearly devoid of Asians.”
The at-large system, he wrote, dilutes the abilities of minorities “to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of the City’s elections.”
In the past 20 years, he added, Loma Linda elections have been almost devoid of Latino candidates.
“While opponents of voting rights may claim that indicates an apathy among the Latino communities, the courts have held that is an indicator of vote dilution,” Shenkman noted.
The fact that there were no challengers at all in the 2012, 2014 and 2016 council elections also shows that the system is daunting to potential candidates, he added.
He suggested the city voluntarily make the change to by-district elections of council members.
Loma Linda’s next scheduled council election is set for 2024.
Redlands Daily Facts archives contributed to this report.