Civil Rights Groups Threaten to Sue Sunnyvale
A coalition of civil rights organizations this week informed Sunnyvale officials they’d better move quickly to change the way City Council members are elected or risk getting sued under the California Voting Rights Act.
The warning came a month after the council, whose seven members all are white, discussed the prospect of switching to district elections. Under that system, council candidates run for seats in separate, carved-out geographical areas whose residents alone choose their representatives. Council members currently are elected “at-large,” by citywide voters, for numbered seats every four years.
The California Voting Rights Act makes it easy for minorities to sue a government that uses at-large voting as long as they can show the voting system impairs the ability of a certain class to elect candidates or influence the outcome of an election.
At the end of the Sept. 5 meeting, the council agreed to start doing public outreach, create a citizens advisory committee and draft a plan that sets the groundwork for a ballot measure in the 2020 general election.
Councilman Michael Goldman said in an interview Friday he and his colleagues were under the impression at the meeting that switching to a district election system would require an amendment to the city’s charter, but he since has learned that is not the case.
A letter dated Oct. 2 and signed by the Asian Law Alliance, Asian Law Caucus and an Oakland law firm urges the city to act within 45 days and complete the process of passing an ordinance within 135 days, Goldman said. The Asian Law Alliance declined to comment on the letter and the Asian Law Caucus couldn’t be reached.
“I think we should do what we’re supposed to do: have a special meeting, notice it, just get on with it,” Goldman said. “It’s like, I don’t want to fight this. What for? Everyone that’s fought this has lost.”
The latest city to fight a switch to district elections was Santa Clara, which was sued by the Asian Law Alliance on grounds that it violated the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the city’s Asian vote. The organization is accusing Sunnyvale of doing the same.
The letter states that although Asians and Asian Americans constitute nearly 43 percent of Sunnyvale’s population, the city has elected only two members from that ethnic community to the council in its history.
“A review of elections in Sunnyvale confirms that Asian Americans are nearly always unsuccessful in contested elections for City Council seats,” the letter reads. “We believe that Asian American candidates have been effectively prevented from occupying seats on the City Council because of the city’s use of at-large elections with numbered posts in combination with racially polarized voting patterns.”
The letter concludes by commending Sunnyvale for starting the process of changing its voting system and encourages it to proceed quickly to avoid “a long, drawn-out court fight.”
Goldman said a fight could be costly for the cash-strapped city and is just not worth it.
“The city of Sunnyvale has a ballot measure to increase taxes for hotels,” he said. “If we are asking for more money, then we don’t have the money to fight this.”
But Goldman may not have the support of his other council members. At last month’s meeting, Councilman Jim Griffith argued that under district elections, council members may represent only the interests of their own districts and not necessarily those of the whole city.
Mason Fong, the only Asian-American and the second non-white candidate running in this election, has spoken in favor of switching to district elections.
If Sunnyvale switches to district elections, it would join a string of other Bay Area cities that have done so recently, including Fremont, Menlo Park and Morgan Hill.