Santa Rosa's voting practices could be target of suit

One of the most vexing disputes over district elections focuses on the level of risk facing Santa Rosa for being sued under the California Voting Rights Act for having "racially polarized voting."

The law, passed in 2001, made it easier for minority groups to prove their votes were being overwhelmed by those of white voters. Several communities have since been sued, including Hanford, Modesto and Madera, in some cases resulting in the cities paying millions in legal fees and being required to switch to district elections.

"We're seeing these sweep the state," said Douglas Johnson, president of National Demographics Corporation.

Supporters of Measure Q on the Nov. 6 ballot say that instead of waiting to be sued, the city should switch to district elections now, which would protect it from such action.

"My opinion is there is a real vulnerability to the city," said former Sonoma County Counsel Steven Woodside, who lives in Fountaingrove.

The fact that so few Latinos have been elected to public office in the city (Ernesto Olivares became the first Latino council member in 2008) and that higher concentrations of Latinos live on the city's west side would likely make it easier for attorneys to make their case, Woodside said.

Also given demographic trends, it is clear Latinos will continue to make up a larger percentage of the population, he said.

"This is, in my view, inevitable, so why not take care of it now?" Woodside said.

But Herb Williams, the political consultant helping direct the Measure Q opposition, is among those who call this a "scare tactic." They say there is no evidence of racially polarized voting in the city.

Determining whether such a pattern exists is complicated, and to date no one has attempted it in Santa Rosa, said attorney and Santa Rosa Schools board member Bill Carle.

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