For a Voting Rights Act lawsuit, plaintiffs have to show that minority voters are voting for different candidates than the majority, called “racially polarized voting,” City Attorney Ariel Calonne said.
The council wants an expert to make a presentation and form an opinion based on precinct results and U.S. Census information. According to the 2010 numbers, 38 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic or Latino.
“Given the percentage of Hispanic and Latino residents in the 2010 Census, the City of Santa Barbara may have a more difficult time showing that there is not racially-polarized voting,” Calonne said.
Local attorney Barry Cappello and several district elections advocates have threatened to file this kind of lawsuit against the city, claiming that the lack of Latino representation on the City Council shows a lack of proper representation.
Santa Barbara uses an at-large system where candidates can live anywhere within city limits and every voter can vote for any of the candidates. While most California cities use this system (440 out of 480), large cities like Los Angeles and Bakersfield use district elections, Calonne said.
Voters can change the election model in charter cities like Santa Barbara, he added.
There has been vocal support for a system with six district-elected council members and an at-large mayor, and Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilman Bendy White previously proposed a hybrid with four district-elected members, three at-large members and one at-large mayor.
At Thursday’s workshop, members of the public asked the council to move municipal elections to even years, which would boost turnout. Many Voting Rights Act lawsuit settlements have included the switch to even-year elections along with imposing district elections, Calonne said.
Santa Barbara would save a lot of money by consolidating its elections with the county on even-numbered years, City Administrator Jim Armstrong said. It currently costs $200,000 to $300,000 to run the city election and would cost about $60,000 for even-numbered years, he said.
The minority and working-class neighborhood turnout for odd-year elections is much worse, said Lucas Zucker, a researcher with the CAUSE group that petitioned for Santa Maria to implement district elections. In Santa Barbara’s last municipal election, the highest-voting precinct had 50-percent turnout while the lowest had only 28 percent, he noted.
Jacqueline Inda said the change to district elections is inevitable so the city should concentrate on how the maps will be divided. Six districts and an at-large mayor would make sure every voter gets a chance to stand up for their neighborhood, she said.
Councilwoman Cathy Murillo and several speakers pointed to the amount of money required to run for council now. Murillo called it “obscene,” noting that she had to raise $88,000 to be elected.
“No wonder why people are cynical and disconnected from their City Council,” she said.
She proposed starting an ad hoc committee of council members to meet with the district elections advocacy groups, and most of her colleagues supported her. Councilman Frank Hotchkiss voted against it, saying the city should wait to see if there is evidence of racially-polarized voting first.
The committee will be officially formed at a future City Council meeting.
However, Murillo’s proposal to consider a six-district, at-large mayor system on November’s ballot failed, so it won’t move forward.
Councilman Gregg Hart said he didn’t support district elections and thinks threatening a lawsuit is “a terrible way to do public policy.”
Even if the city puts district elections on the ballot, Santa Barbara can still be sued if voters don’t approve it, he noted.
Schneider agreed that the situation was frustrating.
“I might live in one neighborhood, but I enjoy and participate in the entire city, and the issues that come about in the entire city, I care about,” she said. “I think it’s a big 'if,' to be honest, whether there is racially polarized voting in Santa Barbara.”