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Legislature Considering Bills to Expand California Voting Rights Act

California cities and other jurisdictions have become familiar-some through expensive litigation-with the California Voting Rights Act (“CVRA”) and its goal of invalidating at-large electoral systems that would not be vulnerable under the federal Voting Rights Act. The voting rights landscape in California could change again, radically, if one or more bills currently pending before the Legislature become law. For example, the “safe harbor” of single-member districts could be stripped away, while at the same time cities are forced into a district-based electoral system, and adjusting district boundaries is subjected to scrutiny and final approval by the California Secretary of State. Here is the line-up:

  • A.B. No. 182 (Alejo, Bonta, & Roger Hernandez) (Coauthor: Calderon) (Coauthor: Senator Hueso): would apply the framework of the CVRA to a jurisdiction electing its governing body using district-based elections. The bill is currently in the inactive file at the request of co-author Senator Hueso, but could be placed back on the agenda with one day’s public notice. This bill is similar to SB 1365 (Padilla) that was vetoed by Governor Brown last session.
  • A.B. No. 254 (Roger Hernandez & Calderon): commencing January 1, 2020, would eliminate the established election dates in March and April, thereby forcing all local elections to be held in June or November.
  • A.B. No. 277 (Roger Hernandez): would amend the CVRA’s definition of “political subdivision” to expressly include a charter city, charter county, or charter city and county.
  • A.B. No. 278 (Hernandez) (Principal coauthor: Alejo) (Coauthor: Senator Hueso): would require the legislative body of a general law city with a population of 100,000 or more to adopt an ordinance for the election of members of the legislative body by district, without submitting the ordinance to the voters of the city for approval. The bill lists criteria for drawing district boundaries, which include, “The boundaries are drawn without regard to the advantage of disadvantage of incumbents, challengers, or any political party.” It also contains a public disclosure provision for communications between “any party and the legislative body regarding the drawing of the boundaries of the districts …” A.B. No. 278 failed to pass in committee, but was granted reconsideration.
  • A.B. No. 1301 (Jones-Sawyer & Alejo): would add a new division to the Elections Code establishing a state “preclearance” system. The system would require the California Secretary of State to approve certain voting-related laws in a jurisdiction with two or more racial or ethnic groups, each of which represents at least 20 percent of the citizen voting-age population. The voting-related laws subject to preclearance include, among others, those 1) expanding the size of a legislative body elected at-large, 2) changing seats elected by single-member district to at-large seats, 3) redistricting or reorganization that reduces the proportion of the citizen voting-age population of a racial or language minority group in a district or jurisdiction by 5 percent or more, and 4) redistricting of a jurisdiction in which a single racial or language minority group has experienced a population increase of 25,000 residents or at least 20 percent of the citizen voting-age population. The Secretary of State has 60 days to approve the change. If the Secretary of State fails to provide a written decision within 60 days, the voting-related change may be implemented.
  • S.B. No. 493 (Cannella) (Principal coauthor: Assembly Member Alejo): applies to cities with populations fewer than 100,000 and authorizes them to adopt an ordinance that requires the members of the legislative body to be elected by district or by district with an elective mayor without being required to submit the ordinance to the voters for approval.
  • And then there is the “wild card,” S.B. No. 437 (Block), a spot bill for the CVRA without any substantive content at this time.