Paso Robles council approves shift to district voting system

Paso Robles electoral districts map

By JOSH FRIEDMAN

The Paso Robles City Council voted last Tuesday to finalize a shift from an at-large electoral system to by-district voting, a move that is intended to appease a lawyer who threatened the city with a lawsuit over the alleged suppression of Latino voting rights.

Last year, attorney Kevin Shenkman, of Shenkman & Hughes, authored a letter to the city of Paso Robles alleging its at-large system violated the California Voting Rights Act. Paso Robles had racially polarized voting, a pattern in which different racial groups support opposing candidates, Shenkman wrote.

Shenkman, who has threatened multiple cities with lawsuits if they do not change their electoral systems, said racially polarized voting was diluting the Latino vote in Paso Robles.

No Latino had run for city council in Paso Robles in the last 20 years, despite Latinos comprising about 34.5 percent of the city’s population, Shenkman wrote. The letter threatened a lawsuit if Paso Robles did not shift to a by-district electoral system.

The city has maintained that racially polarized voting has not occurred in Paso Robles, and residents oppose by-district elections. But, because of the high risk of losing in court, city officials opted to comply with the demand of shifting to a by-district system.

On Tuesday, the Paso Robles council adopted an ordinance that creates four voting districts within the city. Districts 1 through 4 are respectively 43 percent, 30 percent, 26 percent, and 39 percent Latino. The districts are respectively 50 percent, 64 percent, 68 percent, and 55 percent white. 

District 1 is comprised of the northeastern and northwestern areas of the city, including the northern part of the downtown area. District 2 stretches along the eastern edge of Paso Robles and includes, as well, sections of the central and southern parts of the city. District 3 consists of the southwestern part of the city, including the core of the downtown, while District 4 is comprised of the southeastern corner of the city.

Elections for the districts 3 and 4 seats will take place in 2020. Districts 1 and 2 are expected to elect their council members in 2022.

Excluding the mayor, who will still be elected by an at-large system, one sitting council member lives in each district, according to the Tribune. Councilman John Hamon lives in District 1; Councilwoman Maria Garcia lives in District 2; Councilman Steve Gregory lives in District 3; and Councilman Fred Strong lives in District 4.

Despite approving the electoral changes, the city is considering returning to an at-large system in the future, if it can ensure the system would be compliant with the California Voting Rights Act. Following the 2020 census, even if Paso Robles keeps its new voting system, the city’s district boundaries are expected to change.

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