The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) prohibits the use of any election system “that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.”
Jurisdictions can be sued if they elect their governing body using an at-large, from-districts, or mixed election system. If the court finds against a jurisdiction, the jurisdiction must change its election system and pay the plaintiff’s attorneys, experts, and other expenses.
How is the CVRA different from the FVRA?
The CVRA was adopted in 2002, and is based upon the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (FVRA) with some important differences that make at-large election systems much more susceptible to legal challenges. For a plaintiff to be successful in a claim of violation under the FVRA relating to at-large elections, the plaintiff must show that: 1) a minority group is sufficiently large and geographically compact to form a majority of the eligible voters in a single-member district; 2) there is racially-polarized voting; and 3) there is “white bloc voting” (the term used by the courts reviewing such cases) sufficient usually to prevent minority voters from electing candidates of their choice. If a plaintiff proves these three elements, then the federal court will consider whether, under the “totality of circumstances,” the votes of minority voters are diluted by the at-large election system.
The CVRA removes two of these factors. It eliminates what is known as the “geographically compact” FVRA precondition (e.g., can a majority-minority district be drawn) as well as the “totality of the circumstances” or “reasonableness” test. Because the CVRA eliminates some of the elements that a plaintiff must prove, defending a lawsuit brought pursuant to the CVRA is more difficult to defend against than a claim under the FVRA. As a result of the lower threshold for proving a claim under the CVRA, many jurisdictions have voluntarily switched to district-based election systems instead of facing litigation.
Why consider the transition to a By-Trustee Area Election System now?
The School Board has decided to take advantage of recent legislation (AB 350) that provides a short window of opportunity to discuss, invite public input and ultimately decide on a district-based election process. Upon adoption, the School District is provided with an additional 90 days to conduct public hearings prior to an ordinance ordering the transition to a By-Trustee Area Election System (Elections Code Section 10010).
What’s the difference between “at large” elections and “By-Trustee Area” elections?
Ojai Unified School District has an at-large election system, where voters of the entire city elect all members of the School Board. “By-Trustee Area” election systems carve OUSD's area of service into By-Trustee Areas. Voters in each By-Trustee Area choose their School Board representative, who must also live in that By-Trustee area.
How have other school districts responded to the threat of litigation under the CVRA?
Many school districts have changed their election method, voluntarily or by court order. Agencies that have attempted to defend their at-large election systems have incurred significant legal costs. Here are a few examples of the legal costs that other cities paid defending their at-large systems: Palmdale $4.7 million, Modesto $3 million, Anaheim $1.1 million, Santa Barbara $600,000, and West Covina $220,000.
How will transitioning to a By-Trustee Area Election System affect me?
If approved, registered voters in the school district boundaries will have the opportunity to vote for a candidate for School Board that lives in their By-Trustee Area. Registered voters will not be able to vote for School Board candidates from By-Trustee Areas in which they do not reside.
How many By-Trustee Areas will be considered?
At this time, the School Board will be considering a map that includes five By-Trustee Areas.
How many School Board members will be elected?
The School Board will be considering maps that include five By-Trustee Areas. Once the School Board adopts a By-Trustee Area map, the number of By-Trustee Areas in that map will determine the number of Board of Education Members that will be elected in the future.
How can I help shape the By-Trustee Areas?
The School Board is conducting public hearings to receive community feedback on the proposed By-Trustee Areas. Two public hearings will be held before the release of draft maps, and at these hearings residents will be asked to provide input on potential “communities of interest” to follow when shaping draft By-Trustee Area maps. There will be three additional public hearings at subsequent School Board meetings. The School Board will consider an ordinance establishing By-Trustee Area Elections, By-Trustee Area boundaries and which By-Trustee Areas will hold elections and when.
What criteria will be used to select the final map?
Assuming that the School Board chooses to adopt a map and go to By-Trustee Area elections, the School Board will consider a range of factors in selecting the final map including (but not limited to) equal population, communities of interest, compactness, contiguity of the districts, visible boundaries, and respect for voters’ wishes and continuity in office.
What is a community of interest?
A community of interest is any distinctive area within the school district boundaries that has a definable group of people, unique geography or some other distinguishable feature or characteristic that it would be undesirable to divide in the creation of By-Trustee Areas. Some of these may already be clearly established and others may be defined as a result of this process. This distinction requires strong community input to ensure communities of interest are protected in this process.
How will written communications be memorialized during the public hearing process?
All written communications will be provided to the School Board and will be part of the public record. The School Board will consider the public record as part of its determination on the number of districts to consider and how the final district map will be configured, if the School Board chooses to adopt a By-Trustee Area map.
How will the final map be chosen?
The School Board will consider a range of factors if it chooses to select a district map of five geographic areas as part of the transition to a By-Trustee Area Election System. These factors include (but are not limited to) equal population, communities of interest, compactness, contiguity of the districts, visible boundaries, and respect for voters’ wishes and continuity in office.
What is the timeline for the change?
The timeline is prescribed by the California Election Code 10010.
The School Board adopted a resolution of intent on March 13, 2019. In order to receive the “safe harbor” protection of AB 350, the School Board has 90 days from March 13, 2019 to adopt an ordinance transitioning to district based elections for School District Board Members.
When will these new By-Trustee Area Elections take effect?
If approved, the new By-Trustee Area Elections would not become effective until the election in November 2020. However, the specific date on which a Board of Education Member will be elected from each of the new geographic areas (i.e., either in November 2020 or November 2022) will be determined as part of the ordinance that adopts the new districts.