History and Context
In June 2019 two Palm Desert residents, Lorraine Salas and Karina Quintanilla , sued the city, alleging violation of the California Voting Rights Act by claiming that Palm Desert’s system of “at-large” voting was preventing Latino residents from electing candidates of their choice or influencing the outcome of City Council elections.
The lawsuit follows a 2017 letter from the plaintiffs lawyers, Malibu-based Shenkman and Hughes, that urged the city to voluntarily change its system of voting.
The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 states that cities with a minimum 50,000 population switch to district elections to ensure that protected minorities have a better chance for representation. Palm Desert’s population is about 51,700, roughly 26% of which is Latino.
The city proceeded to negotiate with the plaintiffs, culminating in a settlement that city council unanimously approved and announced on December 12, 2019.
What does this mean for me?
The settlement has immediate implications regarding how and for who Palm Desert residents get to vote, starting with our next elections scheduled November 3rd, 2020.
Palm Desert will be split into two voting districts. A currently undefined
“downtown district” will be created, and is specifically intended to have a proportionally high number of Latino voters. This district, which is expected to extend roughly from El Paseo to Magnesia Falls Drive and include neighborhoods adjacent to the Civic Center and San Pablo Avenue, will be able to exclusively elect one representative to the five-member city council.
The remaining four city council members will be belong to a second district that will represent the roughly 80% of residents living outside of the downtown district. They will be elected on an at-large basis, as had been the case previously.
Finally, a new method of selecting council members called ranked-choice voting will be implemented in both districts. As the name suggests, ranked-choice voting is a system that allows voters to rank candidates according to their first choice, second choice, and so on. If no candidate wins an outright majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the race. Any votes that were cast for the eliminated candidate would then be re-allocated to a voter’s second choice candidate. The process continues until one candidate reaches the majority threshold, making them the winner of the race.
Ranked choice voting is a relatively unknown form of voting that will require an upgrade to the city’s voting system. It is not yet clear whether these upgrades can be properly implemented by the November 2020 election. If not, residents will vote “first past the post” as they have done previously, with ranked choice voting then taking effect at the next elections in 2022.
How can I get involved?
The city wants your help! While the two-district solution is settled with the lawsuit, the city needs input in determining what the final district boundaries should be. City council wants to make certain that all residents are heard and represented, and also wants to avoid drawing lines that could arbitrarily divide important parts of our community.
The city is offering residents several opportunities to make their voices heard, starting with an Open House on Wednesday, February 12th. The city’s timeline offers other opportunities for residents to make their voices heard:
This consultation process is expected to conclude in April 2020, when City council will vote on a final proposed boundary, which also needs to be agreed to by the plaintiffs as part of the settlement agreement.
Questions and Answers
What does the settlement cost taxpayers?
As part of the settlement, the city is required to reimburse some – if not all – of the legal fees incurred by plaintiffs Salas and Quintanilla. It is not yet known what this amount is, or if it will be made public. Additionally, the city had to hire independent counsel to advise it as part of the settlement process.
Further, the city is expected to pay around $350,000 for the implementation of Ranked Choice Voting, as no other cities in Riverside County currently use this electoral system.
Finally, the city has and continues to incur costs associated with the determination of its new district boundaries, including retaining a professional demographer, and on-going education efforts as it spreads the word about these changes. The expectation is that these costs will not exceed $100,000.
Why are we switching to Ranked Choice Voting?
Ranked choice voting was advanced by the plaintiffs as a condition of settling their lawsuit, and is not expressly demanded by the California Voting Rights Act
If the city didn’t want to change to district voting, why didn’t they fight the lawsuit?
A large number other cities, municipalities, and counties have been sued by the same law firm, also allegedly in violation of the CA Voting Rights Act. To date, the few that have defended themselves in court have lost, although it is worth noting that no city has extensively pursued their case on appeal. Santa Monica is now doing so, but is rumored to have invested millions in legal fees associated with their defense.
Smaller cities such as Palm Desert simply do not have the budget to legally defend themselves in this way, particularly when they will be expected to cover Plaintiffs legal fees in the event of a loss. Further, cities that do not prevail may have a new voting plan forced on them by the courts, instead of being able to design their own plan, as Palm Desert has now done.
What are the advantages of new system?
– Increases the probably of ethnic minority participation on city council
– A creation of a special “downtown district” aligns with Palm Desert’s previously defined strategic plan of emphasizing the development of its downtown core
– The settlement avoids the creation of five separate districts, which is the path that most cities have taken in recent years to achieve compliant with Voting Right Acts. Five districts has the potential to divide the city into many territories that then compete against each other, rather than work together.
What are the disadvantages of the new system?
– Residents only get to vote for candidates in their district, meaning they get to vote for less people overall. For instance, candidates in the downtown district only get to vote for one candiate (their own), whereas previously all residents got to vote for all five of their council members.
– The new system is considerably more complex.
Desert Sun Coverage (December 12, 2019): https://www.desertsun.com/story/news/local/palm-desert/2019/12/12/palm-desert-reaches-california-voting-rights-act-settlement/4410780002/
Ranked Choice Voting Explained: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P10PFuBFVL8&feature=youtu.be
Latino Share of Eligible Voters: City Map