Santa Clara Considers Changing Local Elections

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 (Getty Images)

Local elections in Santa Clara might be conducted differently come 2018.

A legal complaint was filed against the city in March, alleging that Santa Clara’s voting system discriminates against Asian-Americans.

Santa Clara -- like 90 percent of the state’s cities -- votes using an at-large system, in which all voters can vote for all open seats during an election. The other 10 percent of cities conduct district elections, where voters cast a ballot only for candidates who live in their jurisdiction.

Robert Rubin, the civil rights attorney leading the legal complaint, said at-large elections make it harder for minorities to get elected.

“With a district system, you can draw a district with a majority of minority voters,” Rubin said. “So minority populations can enjoy representation somewhat proportional to their population.”

Civil rights attorney Robert Rubin looks over casework in his office. He's filed a legal complaint against the city of Santa Clara. (Parth Shah/KQED)

Rubin’s legal complaint is backed by the California Voting Rights Act, which states that cities with sizable minority populations should abandon at-large voting systems and switch to districts. Rubin has gotten nearly a dozen cities, counties and school districts in the state to make the conversion.

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The city of Santa Clara is roughly 40 percent Asian. While Asian-Americans are involved in various local committees and commissions, an Asian-American has never been elected to the City Council.

Rubin first butted heads with Santa Clara in 2011. After he wrote a letter to the city urging a switch to districts, a charter review committee was convened to study the city’s voting system. After months of research, the committee determined a district system would not help elect minority candidates in Santa Clara.

“We didn’t really find any ethnic enclaves. The ethnic groups are spread pretty evenly throughout the city,” said Yuki Ikezi, a member of the 2011 charter review committee.

Rubin argues the city’s makeup has diversified in the six years since that committee reviewed Santa Clara’s demographics.

A new committee has been called to once again study districts. But engineer Kevin Park doesn’t think the committee should focus on using districts to get minorities elected.

“Districts are not just about racial diversity, but new candidates,” said Park, who is Korean-American and ran for the City Council in 2014 and 2016. He came in second both times.

Park said he doesn’t mind that all seven City Council seats are currently held by white people. What bothers him is that all of them are incumbents.

“I think that the at-large voting system is going to keep people who are not incumbents, who are not well known, out of the system,” Park said. “In order to get elected, I have to raise money to cover the entirety of Santa Clara. With a district system, I would only have to raise enough money to cover my district.”

The committee tasked with reviewing a change in Santa Clara's voting system will meet throughout the summer. If it supports a move to districts, the City Council will put it on the ballot in the June 2018 primary election. If the general public approves it, the first district election would be in November of next year.