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District Elections

Last Updated January 9, 2019


On November 5th, 2018, the City of San Ramon received a demand letter from a Walnut Creek based attorney, Scott Rafferty, representing the Bay Area Voting Rights Initiative and demanding the City change its current at large based voting process to a district based voting process.  The letter alleges the City was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). The fact that the City has not intentionally discriminated is of no relevance when considering the CVRA. In response to the demand letter and the fact that all cities to date who have litigated similar demand letters have been unsuccessful, the City Council decided to begin the process of moving to district based elections.  Consideration was given to litigating the issue however, in light of the unlikelihood of prevailing in a lawsuit as experienced by other jurisdictions, and the exposure to substantial legal fees which could range in the millions of dollars, the City Council directed staff to begin the process.   In order to comply with the Letter and minimize exposure, the City will begin the process in January of 2019. There are legal protections capping legal fees if  the City adheres to certain statutory timelines.  Although the City has chosen to move to district based elections, the City has discretion on how the district maps are drawn.  There will be multiple opportunities for community input prior to the maps being finalized.

You can read the entire demand letter from the Bay Area Voting Rights Initiative here.

Date Topic/Purpose Location
February 12, 2019
City Council Meeting:  Discussion of Resolution of Intention to Move to District Based Elections
City Hall, 7pm
January 29, 2019
Public Information Meeting on District Elections
City Hall, 6pm
11/27/2018 City Council Meeting:  Discussion of District-Based Councilmember Elections, Item 11.3 City Hall

 Voting Rights Act Lawsuits

What is the CVRA?
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.

What is the Safe Harbor Provision?
The City Council is taking advantage of AB 350, California Elections Code 10010, which provides for a short window on opportunity to discuss, invite and receive public input and ultimately decide if the City should adopt a District Based Election Process.

The key provisions of AB 350 affords the City an additional 90 days to comply before a lawsuit can be filed as it is safe harbored from litigation throughout the public hearing and ordinance process. 

What Have Other Cities Done When Facing Threats Of Litigation?
Almost without exception, other cities have either voluntarily, or been forced to adopt changes to their method of electing City Councilmembers. Many have settled out of court by ultimately agreeing to shift to district elections. Others have defended challenges through the courts. Those agencies that have attempted to defend their existing at-large electoral system in court have incurred significant legal costs because the CVRA gives plaintiffs the right to recover attorney's fees, but denies a city's ability to be reimbursed for its attorney's fees even if prevailing. A few examples:

  • Palmdale: $4.5 million
  • Modesto: $3 million
  • Anaheim: $1.1 million
  • Whittier: $1 million
  • Santa Barbara: $600,000
  • West Covina: $220,000

What's The Difference Between At-Large and District-Based Elections?
San Ramon’s elections for the four members of the City Council as well as the Mayor are contested through an at-large election where voters of the entire city vote on every candidate.   The change to district elections will divide the city into geographic sections. Voters within said section (district) will vote only for candidates residing within the same district. Voters will not vote for candidates outside of their own district.  District elections are intended to allow groups of concentrated opposition voters to elect, or otherwise influence, candidates of their choice.   It is permissible to have the Mayor elected on an at-large basis under a district model.

The graphic below represents sample district construction.  At a basic level districting is simply the process of drawing boundaries to divide jurisdictions into smaller areas.  How the lines are drawn affects how people are represented.  Districts must be contiguous. 


What is the timeline for the change?
The timeline for implementation is prescribed by California Election Code 10010.  The City has 45 days from the receipt of the demand letter from the Bay Area Voting Rights Initiative dated November 5, 2018 to consider if it desires to transition to election by districts and to adopt a resolution that reflects this decision. These timelines are subject to change based on agreement with the legal representatives from the Bay Area Voting Rights Initiative.

When will these new districts take effect?
If approved, the new districts would not become effective until the election in November 2020.  However, the specific date on which a council seat will be elected from each of the new districts (i.e., either in November 2020 or November 2022) will be determined as part of the ordinance that adopts the new districts.

How will creating voting districts affect me?
If approved, registered voters in the City of San Ramon will have the opportunity to vote for a candidate for City Council that lives in their district and for the Mayor, who will still be elected by all the registered voters of the City.  Registered voters will not be able to vote for councilmember candidates from districts in which they do not reside.

Drawing District Boundaries

How can I get involved in the shaping of the districts?
The City Council will conduct four (4) Public Hearings to receive community feedback on the proposed composition of districts. Two Public Hearings will be held "pre-map" in which residents will be asked to provide input on potential "communities of interest" that will be used to influence the shaping of district maps. Two additional Public Hearings will be held "post-map" to provide the City Council with feedback in selecting a preferred district map for adoption.

How will the number of districts and shape of the districts  chosen?
There is a two step process to the development of a district map. First, the City Council will determine the number of districts to go along with the at large Mayor seat. Second, the City Council will determine what what factors should be considered to draw the district. 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 a community of interest?

A community of interest is any distinctive area within the City 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 voting districts. 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.  Possible community features include:

  • shared interests in schools, housing, crime, transit, health conditions, land use, and environmental conditions;
  • common social and civic networks, including churches, temples, homeowner associations, and community centers, and shared use of community spaces, like parks and shopping centers;
  • racial and ethnic compositions, cultural identities, and households that predominantly speak a language other than English;
  • similar socio-economic status, including but not limited to income, home-ownership, and education levels;
  • shared political boundary lines from jurisdictions other than City Council, including school districts, community college districts, and water districts;
  • visible natural and man-made features, street lines and/or City boundary lines.

Who creates district boundaries?
The maps are created by a professional demographers hired by the City based on the direction of the City Council with the input of San Ramon residents.

What input will the public have on map selection other than submitting maps?
Once the map are released for public review on the City’s website , the City Council will have two public hearings  in which it will take public testimony regarding the draft maps.   Members of the public and interested parties also have the option of submitting written comments on the draft maps, including which map or maps they support.

Why is the City using data from 2010 to form districts?  Can't we just wait til the 2022 election?
The City Council would prefer to use the 2022 election date for implementation as it will contain accurate data for the community. However, the choice to delay is a legal determination made and not something the City Council can mandate.


Shouldn't this go to the voters for approval?
Unfortunately, cities facing allegation of violating the CVRA could still be subject to litigation even if it submits the question of whether to switch to district elections to the voters. Even if the voters ultimately oppose switching to district elections, cities would remain vulnerable to accusations that the election resulted in polarized-voting in violation of the CVRA.

What happens if there are no candidates in a particular district?
The California Elections Code authorizes the City Council to solicit applications from interested parties that reside within the district. The applicants would be considered and finalists would be interviewed by the City Council. A nominee would be appointed to serve on the City Council to represent the district in question.

The demand letter from Scott Rafferty was addressed to five Jurisdictions. Does this make the process any different than if the letter were sent to San Ramon directly?
No. The requirements for the City of San Ramon are the same. The City is working with the other agencies included on the letter in an effort to achieve some operational efficiency and to minimize confusion to residents of the Tri-Valley area.

Why can’t the district boundaries consider register voters instead of population?
The California Voting Rights act directs legislative bodies to create districts of equal population with no regard to voter registration or age. It is entirely possible that the number of registered voters in one district will exceed those in another district.

What are the other Tri-Valley Jurisdictions/Agencies who received the demand letter doing?
You can read about the actions taken the other agencies at the following webpages:

Does this impact where my kids go to school?
No.  District elections do not change where your child goes to school. School Boundaries determine where your child goes to school based on their residential address. The election process is completely separate from school boundaries.  You can visit the San Ramon Valley Unified School District webpage to learn more about school boundaries.

Contact Us
Please contact Assistant City Manager Eric Figueroa with any specific questions or concerns that you have regarding this process.  The email address for district elections is  Please be aware that all emails to this address are a matter of public record.  You can reach the Assistant City Manager by phone at (925) 973-2632.

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