Santa Barbara-based Fargey Law firm served the City of Santa Cruz with a notice of violation (NOV) of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) on July 8 in an effort to implement district elections. A NOV informs an individual or body of a possible legal infraction and is often used as a precursor to a lawsuit.

In Santa Cruz, city council members are elected by at-large elections, meaning all residents may vote for multiple candidates from the same pool to represent the city as a whole. 

If district elections are adopted, new district lines will be drawn within the city and residents from each district will elect one representative to the Santa Cruz City Council. This means that each council member would only represent one district, not the entire city.

The Santa Cruz Business Council hosted a forum on Sept. 5 to discuss implementing district elections. Speakers included California Voting Rights Project (CVRP) President Lanny Ebenstein, Santa Cruz City School Board Trustee Deb Tracy-Proulx and former Santa Cruz Mayor David Terrazas, all of whom advocated for district elections in Santa Cruz.

“District elections result in more socioeconomic representation on the council, more diversity on the basis of age, more […] people with young children and geographical representation,” Ebenstein said at the forum. “All sorts of representation increases on a city council when you implement district elections.”

The CVRA calls for district elections as a way to remedy discrimination against protected classes — groups that share a common race, religion or national origin. 

However, the CVRA prohibits the implementation of district elections if doing so would result in discrimination against a protected class. It also states if a protected class is not concentrated in one area, a city may require a remedy other than district elections. 

Panelists advocating for district elections expressed concerns over the underrepresentation of the Latinx population in Santa Cruz. The Latinx community makes up 20.6 percent of the population, yet only 7.1 percent of elected council members have been Latinx in the past 19 years. Panelists and plaintiffs in the Fargey lawsuit argued that district elections would increase the chances of electing a Latinx representative to the council. 

When asked about the panelists’ concerns regarding the representation of Latinx people, Council Member Chris Krohn emphasized that although there is a lack of Latinx representation on the council, district elections are not the solution. 

“There is no full district, should they be drawn, that would be representative or would guarantee representation by the Latino population,” Krohn said. “If the purpose is to put the protected class of Latinos in the same district, I don’t believe you could do it in Santa Cruz.”

The U.S Census Bureau indicates that the Latinx population in Santa Cruz isn’t concentrated in one area of the city. This means district elections wouldn’t specifically impact the Latinx population.

Krohn suggested that ranked choice voting — which allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference — would more effectively increase representation of people of color than district elections. 

The council has until Sept. 30 — four days after UC Santa Cruz classes begin — to decide whether to effectuate district elections or fight an impending lawsuit. This means that students, who make up 30 percent of the Santa Cruz population, will likely be underrepresented in local forums. 

If the council decides to reach a settlement agreement by the Sept. 30 deadline, the city would pay a maximum $30,000 in legal fees and would have to decide whether to implement district elections in November 2020 or 2022. The council might be able to maintain an at-large voting process for mayoral elections. 

“The stakes are much higher than they would’ve been last year,” said former Santa Cruz Mayor David Terrazas at the forum. “We are at a critical point. This council will vote on whether or not to proceed under protections available under the state law for safe harbor to implement district elections. If they don’t, they run the risk of increasing the state’s liability for legal challenges. For me, the question is clear on which path to take.”

If district lines are drawn making UCSC and the surrounding area its own district, over half of the student population would have one representative. Meanwhile, those living off campus would be represented by different councilmembers depending on where they live and how district lines are drawn.

“This is being done boldly to diminish student representation and to put students all in one district on the campus, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a student will be elected,” Krohn said. “They can draw a district in such a way that puts a large number of westside residents along with the students. It is a way to take away political power from students not being able to vote for all seven council members.”