Lawsuit threat pressures SLO to shift to district voting

SLO City Council


San Luis Obispo has become the latest local city to receive a legal threat that may require it to switch to a by-district voting system for electing council members.

On Nov. 13, SLO received a letter threatening a lawsuit under the California Voting Rights Act if it does not switch from an at-large electoral system to by-district voting. City officials want to negotiate the city’s way out of making the shift.

Statewide, dozens of cities have received similar demand letters. Locally, Paso Robles, Grover Beach and Santa Maria have responded to the legal threats by opting to shift to by-district voting. Arroyo Grande also initiated the process.

Lawyers have argued that cities have racially polarized voting, a pattern in which different racial groups support opposing candidates. Attorneys’ argue cities must shift to by-district voting to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

By law, cities have a 45-day period in which they can weigh different options and respond to the demand letter without being sued. On Thursday, SLO announced it negotiated an extension of the 45-day period from Jan. 1, 2020 to Jan. 31, 2020.

City Attorney Christine Dietrick responded to the demand letter by stating SLO intends to analyze the factual basis of the claim and pursue talks about alternative paths to resolution that could achieve even greater diversity and inclusion in city elections than by-district voting. 

Dietrick also said the demand letter overstated minority influence in local elections, undermining the potential plaintiff’s conclusions, the city press release states.