Injunction sought in Socal case could stop switch to district elections here

Above, the logo for the nonprofit Project of Fair Representation, which is backing the lawsuit that challenges district election.

By the Daily Post staff

A federal court case in Southern California could halt Menlo Park from switching from at-large to district City Council elections.

The former mayor of Poway, a city of 49,000 in San Diego County, has asked a judge to issue a preliminary injunction to stop that city from switching from at-large elections to district elections. If the judge grants the injunction, it could stop cities and school districts across the state from changing how they elect their representatives.

Menlo Park is considering whether to dump its at-large council elections for possibly a system whereby council members would be elected by districts to enable residents of the heavily Latino Belle Haven neighborhood to get one of their own residents on council.

Menlo Park is moving quickly to make the change because it has been threatened with a lawsuit by a Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, who contends that the city’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act. He’s sent similar letters to cities all over the state and has collected $4.5 million from one city, Palmdale, that fought him and lost.

Former Poway Mayor Don Higginson, backed by the nonprofit Project of Fair Representation in Arlington, Va., contends that the California Voting Rights Act forces cities to engage in racial gerrymandering, which is illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment. Also, Higginson complained, that by switching to district elections, he is deprived of the right of being able to vote for all of his city’s council members.

Local impact

In Menlo Park, if the city switches to five districts, residents would only be able to elect one person to council instead of the situation now, where they get to vote for all five council members. A switch to district elections would reduce the voting rights of residents by 80%.

The Sequoia Union High School District and the San Mateo County Community College District are also in the process of switching from at-large to district elections.

If approved, the injunction filed Thursday in San Diego federal court would likely suspend such changes scheduled for the November 2018 elections while the lawsuit is being litigated. The San Diego Union-Tribune, which first reported on the injunction yesterday, said that many legal experts think the lawsuit could be in the courts for years as it is appealed.

It is unclear when a decision on the injunction might be made.

Attorney general asks for more time

On Friday, lawyers for state Attorney General Xavier Becerra asked for a 30-day extension to file their initial response to the lawsuit, which was due this week, according to the Union-Tribune.

“This case presents complicated issues regarding redistricting under the California Voting Rights Act and its goal of protecting minority communities from vote dilution in elections; its intersection with the federal Voting Rights Act; and the rights of voters under the Fourteenth Amendment,” attorneys for Becerra wrote in a court filing.

Higginson’s attorney Bryan Weir told the Union-Tribune that by next year, 74 California cities will have switched to district elections. He said that an additional 415 cities still use at-large elections.

“Absent an injunction, then, voters in all of those localities remain at risk of suffering Higginson’s fate” — not being able to vote for all of his city’s representatives. “Put differently,” Weir wrote, “an injunction here would protect the rights of millions of California voters.”

The U.S. District Court case number for Higginson’s lawsuit is 3:17-cv-02032.