Richmond threatened with lawsuit over at-large election system

Richmond City Hall, 450 Civic Center Plaza

Richmond has been threatened with a lawsuit alleging its at-large system of electing council members dilutes representation of minority voters.

On Sept. 11, Richmond City Clerk Pamela Christian was sent a petition from Walnut Creek attorney Scott Rafferty stating the city would face costly litigation if it doesn’t announce an intention to end its at-large system of electing city councilmembers within 45 days of receiving his letter. At-large election systems are when voters elect all members on council. The petition requests a transition to a district-based system that has voters electing only the council member who represents a defined area where they reside.

Rafferty says the “winner-take-all system” of at-large elections violates the Voting Rights Act by diluting the electoral influence of Latino, Asian and African American communities in Richmond. The attorney’s petition charges that at-large elections allow high-voter turnout areas “like Marina Bay and Point Richmond” to control city elections, leaving areas with significant minority populations with inadequate representation.

Attorneys across the state have been taking legal action against at-large systems in response to the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) of 2001. Modeled after the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, the CVRA lowers the threshold required to establish a voting rights violation against at-large election systems and makes the cost to fight a lawsuit “enormous,” according to the California League of Voters.

Rafferty has been targeting at-large systems across the county, including the West Contra Costa Unified School District, which agreed to transition to district elections by 2020 following a legal settlement, and more recently the West County Wastewater District. If Richmond attempts to fight Rafferty’s demand, it will also face steep costs, Rafferty states in his petition.

In his petition, the attorney notes that election code allows plaintiff attorneys to collect fees of up to $30,000 for working on the petition, and that doesn’t include far steeper fees that may result if the case ends up in court.

Though critics claim attorneys such as Rafferty are in it for the payout, Rafferty says the legal actions are about establishing fairer elections that will ultimately improve city services and “create opportunity in every part of the city.”

“With neighborhood elections, city government will be closer to the people it serves,” he said.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt is a vocal opponent of the transition to district elections, telling the Richmond Pulse the council has been diverse “year in and year out,” with current over-representation by African Americans, and only a few years ago over-representation by Latinos.

”Among other flaws is the characterization that under district elections, council members would represent ‘neighborhoods,'” Butt stated further on social media. “If Richmond went to district elections, each district would represent about 18,000 people. There is no ‘neighborhood’ in Richmond with 18,000 people, about the size of Pinole. Anyone who thinks this will guarantee election of a neighbor is not paying attention.”

Richmond won’t have much time to analyze whether its system is, in fact, unfair to minority groups. Along with being given 45 days from the petition’s receipt to agree to transition away from at-large elections, the city is being provided another 90 days to conduct five public hearings to design district election maps.

Such short deadlines prompt a majority of jurisdictions facing steep legal costs to decide to move forward with the transition without analysis, according to a May 2018 report from the League of California Cities.