Lawsuit threatens San Luis Obispo over diluting Latino voters

August 15, 2023


San Luis Obispo may have to change the way its residents elect City Council members.

The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project is threatening to sue the city if it doesn’t voluntarily change to a district-based election system, a change that could lead to more diverse representation on the City Council. In a by-district system, cities are broken down into four districts with residents voting for candidates in their district, while the mayor is elected at large.

“San Luis Obispo relies upon an at -large election system for electing candidates to its governing board,” according to a letter the group served the city earlier this year. “Moreover, voting within the city is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution, and, therefore, the city’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.”

Latinos comprise 19% of the city’ s population of approximately 47,400 residents, according to the U.S. Census Department. Even so, “the city’s governing board has been nearly or completely devoid of Latinos,” according to the letter.

The letter argues the group needs only show the court evidence of racially polarized voting to establish the city is violating the law and needs to move to a by-district system.

Under a by-district system, voters in each district only vote for the candidates running for a single council seat in their district. The candidates must reside in and be registered voters of the district in which they are running.

During a SLO City Council special closed session meeting on Monday to discuss the lawsuit threat, two speakers spoke –  one for and one against by-district voting.

San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce CEO Jim Dantona told the council they are a welcoming city that has achieved diversity and inclusiveness. He then told not to change not to change what they are doing.

SLO-based attorney Stew Jenkins argued that with districts, each council person could advocate for their portion of the city. In addition, with only approximately 12,000 in a district, residents would have better representation.

City attorney Christine Dietrick reported the council took no action on Monday

Founded in 1974, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project reports it is the oldest and largest non-partisan Latino voter participation organization in the United States.

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At Large elections provide the best way for any group of voters to support a candidate to their liking. All the voters within the city or county supporting a candidate can band together, raise funds, support their chosen candidate and win!

Districts work if there are pockets of like minded [or look alike or shared heritage] voters able to elect a candidate tuned to their needs. Our cities and county do not have pockets of like minded [or look alike or shared heritage] voters able to elect a like minded [orf look alike or shared heritage] candidate in their District.

Therefore, districts dilute the votes of any like minded [or look alike or shared heritage] voters instead of promoting those votes.

It is a blessing that our look alike or shared heritage residents are not isolated in gettos making district elections harmful rather than helpful.

Of course the Chamber would be against it. The current system allows the Chamber to control who gets elected to the Council, districts would end the Chamber’s control. Let’s get a Council that’s not a subsidiary of the Chamber!!

Good grief, more identity politics.

So, to be clear; they’re hoping to be treated differently based on their skin color? Yes? That’s what is sound like to me…

For citys the size of SLO, it is time to get rid of an at large mayor, a really useless position, for SLO just move to 5 districts and 5 council members and then a rotating postion to serve as leader of the council.

Agree with a rotating mayor, disagree with the districts for the reasons I laid out

Ok, but I don’t think dirty Chicago politics and SLO council districts are in the same category. Districts are good, especially when there are legit resons, such as in SLO where there is a large temporary voter block, i.e. Cal Poly, or AG when a council is only from the village and does everything based on how it effects the village and leaves out the remainder of the city. Plus by no means does only district voting promote “crackpot” candidates, plenty of “crackpot” candidates emerge from entities without district voting. Many do feel there is a “East vs West” in SLO, some see the 101 as the dividing line. At large voting also solidifies the entrench representative where they only have to garner enough voter from a large voter pool to win instead of from their neighbors and where they live. Ranked voting also takes away one person one vote.

Thanks for the reply, you lay out many of the best arguments for district voting, I agree that in some, perhaps many, circumstances districts are better for representation and governance. I think we primarily don’t agree on the application in SLO.

When I think about our community I do see some differences between geographic areas – particularly Cal Poly, but also the Laguna area, Downtown, south Broad, etc. However I don’t think they constitute significant differences to warrant splitting the city up. With less than 50k residents you’re going to inevitably end up with bizarre lines that slice up neighborhoods (not to mention the cost, debate, and likely cronyism of redrawing them every decade).

Crackpots always make their way into politics, but if two people from the same part of the city are both highly qualified, I see no reason that they shouldn’t both make their way to council, with a city our size I think we risk having too few quality candidates in a broken up pool.

You’re correct that at-large risks getting the same clan of single area council members. But I think this problem can be solved quite easily (one vote per person rather than two, top two elected) and doesn’t requires a total rework and fracture of the city.

Lastly, I think people misinterpret ranked-choice. Many places in the US and worldwide hold runoff elections – no one gets 50%? Top two move on, hold a new election. Ranked-choice is just that – making sure the winner gets 50% plus one, but avoiding the cost and hassle of running a whole new election. It’s still one vote one person. When low vote candidates are eliminated and votes are transfered to the next ranking, *everyone’s* vote gets re-tallied. They are not getting a second vote anymore than everyone who show up to runoffs are getting a second vote or people who Cruz in a primary but Trump in the general are getting a second vote – maybe you see it that way, but hopefully see that everyone’s vote only counts once in the final round, the key thing is that spoiler candidates don’t make for minority winners (see HW Bush v Clinton v Perot).

“you’re going to inevitably end up with bizarre lines” you are likely right when the same people in office when district voting was set up were involved in setting up those lines, their failure at representing all the voters was the reason for districts and will be carried into creating the districts.

“if two people from the same part of the city are both highly qualified, I see no reason that they shouldn’t both make their way to council”, agreed a perfect reason for term limits, one of those “highly qualified” people can serve say two terms and then the other “highly qualified” person can serve, of course if they get elected. In the meantime that other qualified candidate can serve on any of the countless board or committees for the first two terms, but don’t get me started I feel we have way to many boards and committees.

Ranks voting takes away ” one person one vote” and can make a person vote for one particular candidate become a vote for a different candidate. If someone wanted to vote for say candidate A and not candidate B, their vote should not be assigned to candidate B just because candidate A didn’t get enough votes. The creation a ranked voting was developed by those in charge to maintain their hold, for that reason alone ranked voting is a disaster in the making. I also have to smile at the option for every race of “None of the above”, that gives the voters the chance to say “we want none of the candidates the political parties selected” it certainly would make elections interesting but I clearly also see where it could cause some big problems such as elections taking too long, but given some thought I think that could be solved.

Southwest did the same thing in Oxnard. As Jeffries points out below, it just creates little fiefdoms and increases costs. Nothing seems to get better but it does make leftist segregationists feel better. Yes, that’s right, leftist segregationists.

You don’t need to worry about that in SLO. There’s no district that could result in a minority candidate’s getting elected because of a minority majority. However, districts would break up the stranglehold that whacko candidates get under the current system; they would also end the Chamber’s control of the city. We need more responsive council members in SLO, and this is a way to do it. If it happens because of the mis-belief of this organization that it will lead to more Hispanic council members, so what? Let’s help them do this. (As for lack of “Hispanic” council members, I guess they forget the service of Gomez and Romero.)

A debate between two poor systems.

Districts create a more dysfunction council that is beholden to more narrow, self serving perspectives about what good city policy should be – take a look at Chicago where alderman imagine themselves as feudal lords. In small cities tiny districts promote more crackpot candidates, sure the barrier to entry is lower, but that’s not always a good thing. Worse, the circumstances for districts – where one portion or population of the city is radically distinct and underrepresented doesn’t exist in SLO. You couldn’t draw a Latino district, and there isn’t a east vs west SLO.

At-large is better for SLO, but has its own more esoteric flaws, namely at-large is really just block voting. The same set of voters can sweep aside other minority (ethnically, politically, etc.) candidates by sweeping in a “block” of candidates. The easiest solution is to give voters one vote, rather than two for council members (SNTV is the system for the curious). Or of course the better system would be mutli-member ranked choice (STV), where runoff elections happen automatically to elect a slate of diverse candidates. (If you’re right wing, and read this far, you should upvote this because that would mean at minimum 1-2 conservative voices on the council, while we disagree on policy, I believe in my opponents right to representation).

I disagree completely with your analysis, but agree about ranked choice voting being a good way to go. You apparently don’t understand how whacko SLO’s city government has become under winner take all elections. First off, a council member is typically elected by 12-15% of the citizens eligible to vote, yet they behave as if they have a mandate to do whatever they want to do, no matter how many people get hurt by their actions. So we have a really unfair system at present. Second, since they have no defined constituents, they feel no responsibility to look out for everyone; one council member told me he only represented people who voted for him, not people like me — and how would he know that? Third, half the city has been without representation for a long time — 93405 — and the way 93405 is treated is the result of that. Districts, or at-large voting, would break up this mess.

Well we don’t see eye to eye on the quality of the current council, an unpopular opinion here, but I like Mayor Stewart (certainly prefer her to Harmon). Remember also that SLO is a deep blue city compared to the purple county; we’re not getting a red majority this century, but we should have a competent opposition on council to ask the right questions.

An elected official who only represents their voters dishonors their position – at-large council members represent the best interests of the city, they’re not just neighborhood delegates. Also current council members roughly get 30% of the vote if we are being pedantic, breaking into districts runs the high risk of creating fiefdoms with zero opposition. Look at this last 2022 election – both Paso council members, elected by-district, were unopposed. That’s wacky.

Okay, I’ll bite. Assuming this lawsuit has merit, where exactly are SLO’s disenfranchised Latino voters? No ethnic neighborhoods really exist there. If SLO has a barrio, someone please enlighten us.

Groups like this file these sorts of complaints because in “settling” they get $30,000 cash from the city. Hate to be cynical, but that’s about the size of it. But let’s ignore the weirdness of claiming our voting system prevents “Hispanic” candidate success (remember multi-term Mayor Romero?) and recognize that what they seek would be good for all of us. Districts would be an improvement for all but the Chamber establishment.