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Governor Brown Signs New Voting Rights Bills

Eases general law cities’ move to district-based voting in response to threatened litigation and signs bills to combat low voter turnout; vetoes other proposed voting rights bills.

Authorizing general law cities under 100,000 population to move to districts without a vote. Since the enactment of the California Voting Rights Act in 2002, California’s general law cities have faced a dilemma. When presented with a demand that the City move to district-based voting or face litigation under the CVRA, the City Council’s only option to avoid litigation was to submit to the City’s voters the question of whether to move to districts. Unlike school districts, cities had no means of waiving this vote requirement. As a result, cities faced a cumbersome mechanism for changing their method of election, with uncertain results, leading to the filing of lawsuits that might otherwise have been avoided.

On October 10, Governor Brown signed legislation—Senate Bill 493 (Canella, R-Ceres)—that permits the city councils of general law cities, with a population of fewer than 100,000 people according to the most recent Census, to change the city’s method of election to district-based voting without being required to submit the ordinance to the voters for approval. To take advantage of this option, the city need not be facing an actual threat of litigation. The city council merely needs to include a declaration in its ordinance that the change in the method of electing members of the legislative body is being made in furtherance of the purposes of the CVRA.

A separate bill, Assembly Bill 278 (Hernandez, D-W. Covina), which would have compelled general law cities over 100,000 people to move to by-district elections stalled in the Senate. For now, cities over 100,000 total population must still submit a proposed change to districts to the City’s voters.

Authorizing lawuits to combat low turnout. Earlier in the year Governor Brown signed Senate Bill 415 (Hueso, D-San Diego), which seeks to address another issue that has become a frequent point of contention in CVRA litigation: low turnout due to off-cycle elections. SB 415 amends that CVRA to provide that, beginning in January 2018, a jurisdiction that holds its regular elections on a date other than June or November of even years can be sued to force a change of the jurisdiction’s election date if turnout among eligible voters at one of its regular elections was at least 25 percent lower than the average turnout in that jurisdiction at the prior four statewide elections. This would apply to jurisdictions that hold March and April elections, but also to elections held at the odd-year UDEL.

The Governor also signed Assembly Bill 1461 (Gonzalez, D-San Diego), which enacted a California version of the federal “Motor Voter” law, providing that eligible Californians are to be automatically registered to vote when they go the DMV to obtain or renew a driver’s license, unless they object.  How automatic registration will affect the application of SB 415 remains to be seen.

Other voting rights legislation signed. In addition to SB 493, the Governor also signed Assembly Bill 277 (Hernandez, D- W. Covina), which codifies a 2014 Court of Appeal ruling that the CVRA applies to charter cities.

Voting rights bills vetoed. The Governor also vetoed several proposed voting rights laws:

  • Assembly Bill 182 (Alejo, D-Salinas) would have extended the provisions of the CVRA to permit challenges to by-district election maps in state court, whereas the CVRA presently only authorizes challenges to at-large voting. The Governor expressed the opinion that existing federal and state voting rights laws provide sufficient protection.
  • Assembly Bill 254 (Hernandez, D-W. Covina) would have required all local jurisdictions to consolidate elections with statewide elections in June and November of even years, regardless of voter turnout. The Governor expressed the view that SB 415, discussed above, provides a more targeted approach.
  • Finally, the Governor vetoed Assembly Bill 1301 (Jones-Sawyer, D-So. Los Angeles), which would have set up a voting procedures preclearance system under the control of the Secretary of State, similar to the one that previously existed under federal law, writing “. . . I am unconvinced that a California-only pre-clearance system is needed.”