Some Cities Are Fighting the Switch to District-Based Elections

More than 88 California cities have scrapped their at-large voting systems over the past decade and embraced district-based elections. In most cases, the jurisdictions have been responding to legal threats under the California Voting Rights Act. Ever since Palmdale’s costly fight in 2015, it’s common to see cities striking deals with plaintiffs to draw new district maps. But in Orange County, the tide may be turning.

This year, two OC cities are determined to fight back. Cypress and Brea are ready to go to court rather than switch to city council districts. These decisions could prove expensive. Palmdale’s fight ended up costing the city $4.7 million.

“Our constituents all feel very strongly for the most part that districting is not right for a city as small as Brea. Maybe it works for a larger city – but for us, everyone loses. Everyone in the city loses four votes,” Brea Mayor Cecilia Hupp told Voice of OC.

Brea has support from some unlikely figures. Two former city council candidates who lost their races and have been cited as examples of voter dilution by CVRA activists, say they don’t want the city to switch to district-based voting. Richard Rios and Michael Kim say at-large voting did not cause their election losses and they actually sued to make Brea stick to the current system.

Brea almost struck a district-drawing deal with Kevin Shenkman, an attorney well known for his CVRA crusades. The city has since changed its mind. Councilman Steven Vargas pushed to have the city repel the threat, citing similar defiance from Cypress, Irvine, and Norco in Riverside County.

The Cypress City Council voted 4-1 last month to reject a similar letter from Shenkman demanding a switch to district elections.

The question now is whether the tide is turning for district-based elections. Probably not. But it at least signal a last gasp for municipalities — an unwillingness by some to go down without a fight.

Shenkman is incredulous.

“They want to be sued?” he asked the Los Angeles Times of Brea’s decision.

Asked if he’ll go all the way with a suit against Brea, Shenkman responded: “Absolutely.”