Santa Clara is the latest in a long line of California cities that could switch to district elections under the threat of litigation, a move advocates hope will diversify politics in a growing Silicon Valley city that’s only had one council member who isn’t white in recent years.
Wesley Mukoyama, a Japanese man who’s lived in Santa Clara for more than 40 years, is challenging the city’s at-large election system in a lawsuit claiming that the current method blocks minority voters from electing people who represent them.
“When more than 40 percent are speaking a language other than English at home, I wonder if our interests are being represented,” said Mukoyama, 74, who is demanding a switch to district elections. “They’re continuously recycling the same council members. We need new blood and if we had district voting, perhaps people of color in certain areas could be represented.”
Despite the city’s evolving demographics, every member of the seven-person Santa Clara City Council is white, including Mayor Lisa Gillmor. More than half of the city’s population is a minority, with 40 percent Asian.
Gillmor agrees Santa Clara needs more diversity on its council because “that leads to a more well-rounded decision-making process.” But the mayor isn’t convinced that the city’s at-large election system needs to go — until the city studies the issue.
Santa Clara has long been criticized for the lack of diversity on its City Council and is the latest in a series of cities and counties to face challenges over at-large elections, in which candidates represent certain districts, but can be elected by all voters. District elections allow voters to elect a representative in geographically divided areas.
Mukoyama argues Santa Clara is violating the California Voting Rights Act, which prohibits the use of at-large systems when voting patterns are racially polarized.
“The community is entitled to elect candidates of its choice in a proportional manner,” said Robert Rubin, a San Francisco civil rights attorney representing Mukoyama who’s won a dozen similar cases across the state, including in San Mateo County. “It is unconscionable that the city would allow such wide-scale disenfranchisement of such a significant segment of its population.”
San Mateo County in 2013 became the last county in California to move from countywide to district elections after facing a similar lawsuit. Fremont last monthbegan the process of converting to district elections after it was threatened with a lawsuit. Latinos make up roughly 14 percent of Fremont’s population, but rarely, if ever, has a Latino served on the council.
Watsonville, which became the first city to make the switch after litigation in 1989, saw a rise in Latino representation — going from one Latino council member to a majority of council members who are are Latino.
By dividing the city into districts, advocates say, it bolsters the chances of a minority candidate being elected and increases voter turnout. The Santa Clara lawsuit alleges that the “winner take-all method results in the dilution of Asian-American and Latino voting strength.”
San Jose is the only city in Santa Clara County that holds district elections, which are the norm in other major cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. Only 59 out of California’s 489 cities — 12 percent — elect their representative by district, according to a report by California Common Cause,
Meanwhile, there’s some skepticism about whether the Voting Rights Act is meeting its mission of increasing diversity. Two years after Palmdale paid $4.5 million to settle a lawsuit and switched to district elections, it still has just one Latino council member, according to a Los Angeles Times report.
Gillmor said Santa Clara has revived a charter review committee to discuss the change to district elections, which has been complex and time-consuming because the committee also must decide how to divide the city.
“We are working on it now and have been for months — it’s just not that easy to come up with how you divide the city,” Gillmor said. “I’m going to recommend we make this the No. 1 priority of the committee.”
According to the 2010 Census, nearly 20 percent of the Santa Clara’s 116,468 population is Hispanic or Latino, and nearly 38 percent is Asian-American.
In the 2016 election cycle, six minority candidates ran for four seats on the council. None were elected.
This isn’t the first time Mukoyama has pushed the city to dump its election system. He sent letters demanding the change as early as 2011, according to the lawsuit, but got no response.
“It is well past time for the Asian-American community to be able to have its voice at the table in the city of Santa Clara,” said Richard Konda, executive director of Asian Law Alliance of Santa Clara County, who’s also representing Mukoyama. “Given the racially polarized voting we have found, district-based elections will be the first step in the right direction.”
Undoing the current election method requires changing the city’s charter, city officials said, and a vote by residents.