City of Exeter forced to change election format

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By Paul Myers @PaulM_SGN

EXETER – The City of Exeter’s charter says that the City will hold at-large elections to elect city council members, but now the City is forced to move toward district elections…or else.

The ‘or else’ is litigation from Kevin Shenkman, an attorney with Shenkman & Hughes Attorneys out of Malibu, Calif. Issuing a letter to the City of Exeter on July 14, 2017, Shenkman wrote on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and alleges that, “Voting within Exeter is racially polarized, resulting in minority vote dilution, and therefore Exeter’s at-large elections violate the California Voting Rights Act of 2001.” For brevity, this act is also known as the CVRA.

Exeter is the latest city to be caught in Shenkman’s crosshairs, as he has taken several cities to task over the CVRA. Shenkman says in the letter that, “Voting rights advocates have targeted ‘at-large’ election schemes for decades because they often result in ‘vote dilution,’ or the impairment of minority groups’ ability to elect their preferred candidates or influence the outcome of elections, which occurs when the electorate votes in a racially polarized manner.”

Also in the letter Shenkman refers to his recent win over the City of Palmdale. The courts forced the City to pay Shenkman and Palmdale voters Juan Jaurequi, Jesse Smith and Nigel Holly $4.5 million plus interest. Shenkman argued that the City’s at-large voting system deprived them of the opportunities to elect representatives of their choice. The decision to fight Shenkman in the courts was contentious given his history of prevailing in these cases.

Shenkman’s argument is roughly the same stating in his letter that, “Exeter’s at-large system dilutes the ability of Latinos to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Exeter’s council elections.” He goes on to use Latino candidate James Garcia who unsuccessfully ran in 2006, 2008 and 2010 as an illustrative example. Shenkman asserts that in each of his campaigns he received significant support from the Latino minority. “However, due to the bloc voting of the non-Latino majority – who preferred Mr. Garcia’s non-Latino opponents, Mr. Garcia was unable to secure a city council position in 2006, 2008 or 2010.”

Shenkman has been able to successfully argue vote dilution because of changes in the CVRA. In the letter Shenkman says that the California Legislature did away with the requirement that a minority group demonstrate that it is sufficiently large and geographically compact to substantiate a “majority-minority district.” Now all the CVRA requires is that a plaintiff show the existence of racially polarized voting to show that at-large elections violate the CVRA.

Currently the council is composed of five non-Latino members. Shenkman indicates that is out of proportion with the demographics of the city where he claims 45.5% of Exeter’s population is Latino.

“Given the historical lack of Latino representation on the city council in the context of racially polarized elections, we urge Exeter to voluntarily change its at-large system of elections. Otherwise, on behalf of residents within the jurisdiction, we will be forced to seek judicial relief,” Shenkman’s letter said

Now the City is faced with changing their charter from at-large elections to district elections, or have the matter be litigated in court, which is prohibitively expensive. Especially considering the budget deficit the City Council passed in June. There is not a likely scenario where the city is in a position to take the matter to the courts in hopes of finding a different ruling.

In the face of losing millions, the City is in all likelihood going to move to district elections. But there is no guarantee districts will infuse the council with greater racial representation. Shenkman’s letter says that, “Mr. Garcia remains the only Latino to run for Exeter’s city council in the 21st century which is itself an indication of vote dilution.” He went on to note that so few Latinos on the council is telling in and of itself. But even in 2016 two positions on the council were elected in lieu meaning that there were only two qualified candidates for two available seats on the council. In 2014 three seats were up for election and only four candidates were in the race, none were Latino. In 2012 two seats were up for election with no Latino candidates.

Exeter’s 2010 census says that there are 10,506 residents, and the Tulare County Elections office notes that 4,285 of them are registered voters. Last year 75% of Tulare County registered voters submitted ballots.

Assuming that Exeter falls in the 75% trend only 3,214 registered voters will vote. Divided up amongst five districts there will be 624 voters per district. Those numbers are significantly smaller than what Shenkman dealt with in Palmdale who has approximately 20,000 more residents than Visalia who has just over 130,000 people.

Visalia went to a districts form of elections two years ago. Their first held district election was in 2016.

The City of Exeter has until Sept. 2, 2017 to respond to Shenkman’s letter determining whether they will voluntarily change to districts or continue with their at-large elections format.

 

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