Santa Clara loses lawsuit over at-large council elections that’s similar to Menlo Park dispute

The map shows the five new city council districts in Menlo Park.

The city of Santa Clara has lost a lawsuit that is similar to one that has been threatened against Menlo Park over the city’s system of voting for city council elections.

Both cities have elected council members at large, meaning every voter in town gets to elect each council member.

Four Santa Clara residents sued the city in October, saying the at-large system prevented Asian-Americans from winning council seats and therefore violated the California Voting Rights Act.

The lawyer for the four, Robert Rubin, rooted his argument in the fact that not a single Asian-American had been elected in Santa Clara since 1951. He said the city had denied the community of its constitutional rights.

Judge Thomas Kuhnle, in a proposed decision issued Tuesday (May 15), said the four plaintiffs proved by a “preponderance of the evidence” that the at-large method had failed the demographic as a result of dilution.

Racial polarization

Kuhnle said he went through statistical data provided by Ru-bin’s expert J. Morgan Kousser and found proof of racially polarized voting in five of the Santa Clara City Council elections from 2002 to 2016.

Kuhnle said he also took historical discrimination of the Asian community into account while making his decision, noting that they had suffered because of it in areas such as education, employment and health, which “hinder their ability to participate effectively in the political process.”

The city’s attorneys have 15 days to submit an objection to the ruling, Kuhnle said.

Santa Clara will have to switch to district elections, where council members are elected from districts rather than citywide.

Threats of similar lawsuits have prompted other cities to change from the at-large election system to district elections.

Menlo Park’s experience

Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman threatened Menlo Park with a lawsuit last year if it didn’t switch from at-large to district elections in order to give more representation to the Belle Haven neighborhood, which has a majority of Latinos.

Menlo Park responded to Shenkman’s threat by switching to council districts starting this fall. Going forward, each voter will only get to select one council member, not all five.
— From staff and wire reports