PD Editorial: Election bullies strike again in Rohnert Park

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Add Rohnert Park to the growing list of cities and school districts bullied into switching from at-large to district elections.

The city capitulated after receiving a letter from a Malibu law firm that appears to have found a profitable niche: alleging “racially polarized voting” and threatening a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act.

Defending a case in court can run into seven figures, but a “safe harbor” amendment to the law enacted in 2017 limits plaintiffs to collecting $30,000 in legal fees if a city or school district agrees within 45 days to change its election system.

Since then, dozens of jurisdictions have switched without forcing attorney Kevin Shenkman and his client, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, to prove that minority groups are disenfranchised by their election systems.

Rohnert Park is the fourth to do so in Sonoma County, following Windsor, Santa Rosa and the Santa Rosa City Schools.

District-based elections make sense in large communities. But many of the cities receiving letters are quite small. Fort Bragg, for example, has barely 7,000 residents.

Moreover, evidence of racially polarized voting is scant in a number of the targeted cities, including Rohnert Park.

And there’s little evidence that switching to district elections is producing more diverse city councils and school boards.

California’s elected officials ought to reflect the state’s diversity, and the state needs a tool to ensure that at-large election systems don’t dilute minority votes. But there are key differences between the state and federal voting rights act.

First, under the federal law, a group of protected voters must live in a geographically compact or concentrated area. In other words, there needs to be an opportunity to draw a district with a concentration of minority voters. No such requirement exists under state law, which may be why no city has successfully defended itself against a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.

Second, the U.S. Justice Department enforces the federal Voting Rights Act, while the state law allows lawsuits filed by individuals and organizations. There may no one more prolific than Shenkman and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.

Nonpartisan at-large local elections were among the Progressive reforms adopted in California in the early 20th century. Abandoning them should involve more than weighing a long-shot trial against paying a $30,000 toll to stay out of court.

Elections are the foundation of our democratic system. Lawmakers owe it voters to assess the impact and effectiveness of the California Voting Rights Act, perhaps through a series of oversight hearings or by assigning the state auditor to review the law.

In addition to considering conformance with federal law, lawmakers should consider establishing a threshold for plaintiffs to demonstrate that a violation has occurred before starting the 45-day clock for a city or school district to switch or risk a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, residents of Rohnert Park will have an opportunity in the coming weeks to determine the shape of the city’s government — how and where boundary lines will be drawn and whether to have five districts or four with a mayor elected citywide, as Windsor chose.

The clock also is running for Santa Rosa, which switched to district elections under duress in 2018. Residents didn’t get a say, but they should be allowed to decide whether they want to elect a mayor before new lines are drawn after the 2020 census.

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