For over a year, the City has been 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 would fundamentally impact local governance and alter the process by which City voters have elected their representatives for decades, the Council directed City staff to conduct 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.
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 had two phases. In phase I (January-June), the City educated the public on issues related to the CVRA and gathered input on potential remedies and the preferred timeline for a ballot measure. After receiving community input, Council decided to place a charter amendment measure (Measure B) on the March 2020 ballot asking voters to consider changing to a 6-district election system with a mayor directly elected by all voters.
The second phase (July-December) focused on community mapping exercises to develop options for district boundaries for Council consideration. The Council selected map 120D developed by the Unity Group, a diverse group of Sunnyvale residents from across the city.
If Measure B passes, map 120D will be used for the November 2020 election. Even districts will select their Council representative and all voters will vote for mayor in November 2020. Odd districts will elect their Council representative in November 2022.