Charged with racial bias, Paso Robles may switch to district voting system

Faced with the threat of a lawsuit over the alleged suppression of Latino voting rights, the city of Paso Robles is considering shifting from an at-large electoral system to one consisting of voting districts. The Paso Robles City Council may adopt a resolution on Tuesday declaring its intention to make the change.

Last month, attorney Kevin Shenkman, of Shenkman & Hughes, authored a letter to the city of Paso Robles, alleging its at-large system violates the California Voting Rights Act. The letter alleges Paso Robles has racially polarized voting, which dilutes the city’s Latino vote. Racially polarized voting is a voting pattern in which different racial groups support opposing candidates.

Shenkman states in the letter that Latinos comprise 34.5 percent of the city of Paso Robles, but no Latino has run for city council in the last 20 years. The lawyer also accuses the Paso Robles council of failing to condemn racist speech that has occurred during public comment.

The letter threatens a lawsuit if the city does not create a by-district electoral system.

Under the California Voting Rights Act, individuals are allowed to sue agencies and demand a change in the electoral system if racially polarized voting exists in the jurisdiction. The state Voting Rights Act also entitles the plaintiff to collect compensation for legal fees when such lawsuits succeed.

A Paso Robles city staff report states the Voting Rights Act establishes a fairly low threshold, and numerous agencies in California have faced challenges over their at-large election systems. None of the agencies have succeeded in court, according to the staff report.

Because of the low probability of success in court and the potential result of being required to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees, many agencies have opted to voluntarily adopt by-district electoral systems.

City staff does not believe Latino racially-polarized voting has occurred in Paso Robles. But, staff is still recommending switching to a district voting system because of the low likelihood of the city prevailing in court.

Under state law, Shenkman is entitled to recover legal fees of up to $30,000, even if the city voluntarily makes the change to a by-district system.

Additionally, the city must adopt a resolution on the change in electoral system within 45 days, hold at least four public hearings on the matter and convert to a by-district election system at a specific accelerated time. The city would have 180 days to develop voting districts.

It is estimated to cost $30,000 to have a consultant conduct initial demographic analysis and prepare district maps. City staffers would also have to work on the change in electoral system.

Staff is recommending that the council adopt the resolution declaring the planned change in voting system at Tuesday’s meeting.

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