Over the next several months, the City will be exploring changing to a district-based electoral system for selecting City councilmembers. By City Charter, we currently have “at-large” elections for seven numbered seats. You vote for all candidates running for a seat on the City Council, and the elected councilmembers represent the entire city versus a defined geographic district.
Cities and other local agencies with at-large voting 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 (known as “racially polarized voting”). CVRA litigation is costly and no agency has ever won a case. As a result, most agencies have settled lawsuits by quickly agreeing to move to district-based elections, or courts have ordered cities that have chosen to litigate – like neighboring Santa Clara – to change to district-based elections.
In September 2018, the City Council discussed whether to proactively address CVRA concerns by submitting a charter amendment to Sunnyvale voters to change our electoral system to district-based voting, the method preferred by the CVRA. Recognizing that this change will fundamentally impact local governance and alter the process by which City voters have elected their representatives for decades, the Council directed City staff to develop a plan for robust public outreach, education and community input on this complex issue.
The City subsequently received a letter in early October 2018 alleging CVRA violations and demanding that the City transition to district-based voting. The letter also commended the City for initiating steps to consider alternatives to at-large elections, and the City will be incorporating appropriate measures to address that letter into the outreach process directed by the City Council.
On December 11, the City Council approved a Community Engagement Outreach Plan focused on educating residents about requirements under the CVRA and seeking input on changing the City’s current election system to a district-based system. In approving the outreach plan, Council expressed its commitment to a robust public engagement process prior to making a final determination as to the timing and substance of a ballot measure to switch to district elections. The outreach plan will have two phases. In phase I (January-June), the City will educate the public on issues related to the CVRA as well as gather input on potential remedies and the preferred timeline for a ballot measure. The second phase (July-December) will focus on community mapping exercises to develop options for district boundaries for Council consideration.