In 2019, the City of Sunnyvale explored changing to a district-based electoral system for selecting City councilmembers. By City Charter, Sunnyvale had “at-large” elections for seven numbered seats that represented the entire City (as opposed to seats that represent defined geographic districts). Cities and other local agencies with similar at-large election systems have increasingly been targets for litigation under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), which prohibits voting practices that dilute the votes of racial minorities.
In September 2018, the City Council began a discussion about whether to proactively address CVRA concerns by submitting a Charter amendment to Sunnyvale voters to change the electoral system to district-based voting, the method preferred by the CVRA. Recognizing that this change would fundamentally impact local governance and alter the process by which City voters have elected their representatives for decades, the City implemented an outreach process in 2019 to educate residents and seek community input on this complex issue.
Following the outreach process, the City Council voted to place Measure B on the March 2020 ballot. On March 3, 2020 City voters approved amendments to Article VI of the Charter to change the City’s system for electing City council members to a district-based system (along with associated changes described in this FAQ).
These Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and the accompanying Glossary provide background information about the City’s previous and new election processes, the CVRA, including the decision to place Measure B on the March 2020 ballot and the key elements of Measure B.
Definitions of text in bold italic can be found in the Glossary, located at the end of the FAQ. The definitions will also appear in pop-up boxes if you hover your cursor over the text or touch the text on the screen.
Measure B amends Article VI of the City Charter to change Sunnyvale’s City Council election system from an at-large with seven numbered seats system with a mayor selected by councilmembers, to a six-district system with a mayor directly elected by Sunnyvale voters. Passage of Measure B makes the following key changes to Article VI of the City Charter:
The mayor’s responsibilities remain the same under Measure B: acting as presiding officer (or chairperson) during Council meetings, having one of seven votes in all council proceedings, and serving as Council spokesperson.
Previously, City councilmembers could not serve more than two consecutive four-year terms. Measure B allows members to serve up to three consecutive four-year terms, however, a member cannot serve more than two terms as councilmember or mayor. Therefore, a member of the Council can serve 12-years total under two scenarios:
Scenario A: a member can serve two 4-year terms as a Councilmember and one 4-year term as Mayor
Scenario B: a member can serve one 4-year term as a Councilmember and two 4-year terms as Mayor
As part of the City’s Phase I outreach (January-June 2019), the City engaged residents on their preferences for 7 districts with an appointed mayor or 6 districts and an at-large mayor. The City also conducted scientific polling. Staff presented and the Council discussed feedback from the outreach and the polling results and heard public comment at the June 11, 2019 Study Session. On June 18, 2019, the Council voted 5-2 to move forward with a map drawing process for 6 districts with a directly elected mayor, and voted on November 12 to place a measure on the ballot with the same structure.
The district lines were developed through a 6-month community map drawing process. The approved map (120 D) was proposed by the Unity Group, a diverse coalition of Sunnyvale residents from different geographic areas of the City. The Council introduced an ordinance on December 3, 2019, (RTC No. 19-0679), and adopted the ordinance on December 10, 2019, establishing the district boundaries and district election sequencing.
The City of Sunnyvale Charter Section 601 provided for an electoral system that required at-large elections in which Council candidates ran on a citywide basis for one of the seven numbered City Council seats. Staggered elections were held in even-numbered years, with either three or four seats open depending on the year. Councilmembers served a four-year term and collectively select the mayor from their cohort to serve a two-year term.
Many California cities that elect their city councils through at-large elections have been threatened with lawsuits or sued under the California Voting Rights Act to require them to change their election systems to district-based elections. To date, no agency or city has prevailed in CVRA litigation. A loss exposes a city not only to forced changes to the election system (sometimes substantially determined by a court), but also to liability for millions of dollars in attorney fees.
Sunnyvale’s neighboring city, Santa Clara, was recently sued and lost a court case for violating the CVRA while using an at-large, numbered-seat system almost identical to Sunnyvale’s. Under the resulting court order, the City of Santa Clara had to switch to district-based elections in a highly-expedited process. Recognizing that a CVRA challenge would impact fundamental governance issues, could result in potentially significant litigation expenses, and court-ordered changes rather than voter decisions, Sunnyvale’s City Council decided to voluntarily initiate a process to consider switching to district-based elections. After the City Council started this process, the City received a notice letter alleging CVRA violations, the required prerequisite to filing a CVRA lawsuit in court. Switching to district-based elections addressed the potential litigation risk.
In an at-large election system, voters in the entire city elect the members of the City Council. In contrast, district-based elections divide a city into separate geographic districts, and voters within each district vote for candidates residing within their same district. In district-based elections, voters only vote for candidates in their own districts; they do not vote for candidates outside their district.
A district-based election system could potentially concentrate groups of like-minded voters whose votes would otherwise be dispersed in an at-large election system. The diagram below illustrates how opposition voters could elect their preferred candidate in a district-based election system, but not in an at-large election system. Under these scenarios, opposition voters would be a minority in an at-large election, and hence unable to elect their preferred candidate. In a district-based election, these same opposition voters could represent a majority within a single district, so they could elect their preferred candidate.
Yes. A District-based election system protects an agency from a CVRA challenge because the CVRA offers a “safe-harbor” which states that any city that moves from at-large elections to district-based elections is assumed to have addressed purported CVRA violations.
Since passage of the CVRA, most cities facing challenges to their election systems have voluntarily changed from at-large elections to district-based elections to avoid the significant risks of litigation. The number of California cities with district-based election systems has increased significantly.
The City of Sunnyvale Charter Section 500 currently provides for a Council-Manager form of government, which means that the City is administered by the City Manager and staff, with policy guidance by the Mayor and City Council. This does not change under district-based elections.
Currently, the mayor is selected by the City Council from within the Council. Starting in November 2020, Sunnyvale voters will vote directly for mayor in a City-wide election every four years, which will be separate from the district-based elections for the six other Council members. The existing responsibilities of the mayor described in current Charter section 605 remain unchanged: to be the presiding officer, to have a voice and vote in all Council proceedings, and be the head of the City for ceremonial purposes.
The CVRA is largely untested in litigation, but all cities that have litigated to date have lost or settled. The vast majority of cities have chosen to settle by switching to district-based elections in the pre-litigation stages of the process after receiving a demand letter.
In one of the few court cases on the CVRA, the Fifth District of the California Court of Appeals upheld the CVRA against a constitutional challenge in Sanchez v. City of Modesto (2006). The California Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court denied a petition for certiorari, which means that the CVRA law is constitutional. In Jauregui v. City of Palmdale (2014), an appeal determined that the CVRA applies to charter cities like Sunnyvale. Palmdale lost on the merits at trial and, although it appealed that loss, the case settled before a final determination.
The City of Santa Clara went to trial on a CVRA case in May 2018 and lost. Although the decision has not yet been appealed, and hence is not a legally-binding precedent, it is instructive for Sunnyvale due to the similarities between the demographics and the electoral systems in both cities, and because Sunnyvale and Santa Clara are in the same county. The plaintiff argued that Santa Clara’s at-large, numbered-seat system impaired the ability of Asians to elect preferred candidates. The court not only found the existence of racially polarized voting, but also accepted lower standards of reliability for the statistical analysis used to establish it. The court also noted that the “numbered-seat” system of at-large elections is historically suspect, with numerous federal cases holding that it disadvantages minority voters. The court therefore ordered Santa Clara to complete expedited public meetings on district boundaries, decided the boundaries, and, in late July 2018, ordered the City of Santa Clara and the Registrar of Voters to implement district-based elections for the November 2018 election.
In November 2018, the City of Santa Monica lost at trial on a CVRA case. Among other defenses, Santa Monica argued that its at-large election system does not violate the CVRA because districts would not meaningfully enhance minority representation. The court was not convinced by that argument and there is currently a proposed judgment establishing districts and ordering a special election for all council seats on July 2, 2019, based on the rationale that prior elections were illegal. While Santa Monica still has time to appeal that decision, this case is notable because it illustrates the unpredictable and potentially extreme outcomes that might result from litigation.
 145 Cal.App.4th 660
 226 Cal.App.4th 781
Many factors were considered, but electoral district population were the main requirement. Other factors included, but were not limited to, the following:
Individual residents and groups (map-makers) took the lead in drawing and proposing maps that the Council considered during Phase II of the project.
The City Council initiated a phased approach to study implementation of a district-based election system before making the decision to submit Measure D to the voters:
If there are no candidates for a vacant Council seat, then an election would not be held and the seat would become vacant at the end of the current Council member’s term. The City Charter specifies the City Council must formally declare the seat to be vacant within 30 days of the commencement of the vacancy. The City Council must then fill the vacancy by appointment or by calling for an election within 60 days.
If the Council decides to fill the vacancy by appointment, the appointee holds office until the next General Municipal Election or a Special Municipal Election consolidated within the next statewide election, whichever occurs first, at which time another election for the seat is held.
If the Council decides to fill the vacancy by election, a Special Municipal Election must be held within 240 days of the declared seat vacancy.
In an at-large election system like Sunnyvale’s, voters in the entire city elect all members of the City Council.
The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) was adopted in 2002 (California Elections Code § 14025 et seq) to prohibit voting practices that dilute the votes of racial minorities. The CVRA prohibits at-large elections that impair the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice. The CVRA is broader than the federal Voting Rights Act and alters established paradigms of proof and defenses under the federal Voting Rights Act, making it easier for plaintiffs in California to challenge the electoral systems of any city or district that does not elect its governing board “by-district.”
A Charter is like the City’s constitution. Charter city law, per the California Constitution, allows city regulations to trump State law for municipal governance.
A City charter can only be amended by a majority vote of its electorate.
Cumulative voting is an electoral system generally used in an at-large election in which more than one winner will be chosen. This system allows a voter to cast more than one vote, with the number of votes generally equal to the number of winners to be selected. For example, if there are three seats up for election, a voter can cast three votes. A voter can cast all three votes for a single candidate, or two for one candidate and one for a second candidate, or one vote each for each of three candidates.
See “California Voting Rights Act.”
District-based elections divide a jurisdiction into separate geographic districts, and voters within each district vote for candidates residing within their same district. In district-based elections, voters only vote for candidates in their own districts; they do not vote for candidates outside their district.
Per the federal Voting Rights Act, racially polarized voting exists when the electoral choices that are preferred by voters in a protected class and the electoral choices that are preferred by voters in the electorate at-large differ.
 Voting Rights Act of 1965 § 201; 52 U.S.C. § 10501 (formerly 42 U.S.C. § 1973aa)
This system gives voters the option of choosing multiple candidates in order of preference. After ballots are counted, if no single candidate receives a majority, the candidate with the fewest top-rank votes is removed from the ballot, and the votes of voters who ranked that candidate first are apportioned to those voters’ second-choice candidates. This process is repeated by eliminating the candidate with the fewest top-choice votes and reapportioning votes among the remaining candidates until one candidate gets a majority.
A safe harbor is a provision of a law or a regulation that specifies that certain conduct will be deemed not to violate a given rule. The CVRA’s safe harbor provision states that any city that moves from at-large elections to district-based elections is presumed to have addressed purported CVRA violations.