In five days, Santa Clara could have an entirely new district voting system — again.
To City Hall insiders, it might feel like déjà vu — the city pushed a similar measure two years ago that failed. To others, it might be downright confusing. But Santa Clara is embarking on a highly contested journey to halve the number of council districts for future elections, three years after it was sued to break up its at-large voting system.
The move comes in the form of Measure C, which will appear on the March 3 ballot and seeks to reduce the city from six council districts to three. Two years ago, a measure to divide the city into two districts failed, and now both sides are turning up the heat on Measure C.
Supporters of Measure C, which include Mayor Lisa Gillmor and her council allies, say it will allow candidates to run less expensive campaigns and it’s what the residents want. Opponents, such as the San Francisco 49ers, nonprofit leaders and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, say the change would stifle democracy and reduce Santa Clara voters’ representation.
After the city lost the 2018 lawsuit, which claimed that its at-large voting was illegal and suppressed the minority vote, Santa Clara leaders were forced to split the city into six districts. The new system helped elect Raj Chahal — the city’s first minority councilmember in decades. But Gillmor and her allies fought back in what some called an attempt to maintain power, pushing for a failed attempt to create just two districts — and now three with Measure C.
“What we’re trying to do is complicated because the entire lawsuit, the appeal, changing a charter … it’s all very complicated,” Gillmor said. “Trying to make it simple, understandable and make sense for our voters is challenging.”
But with the decision just days away, confusion lingers about Measure C — what exactly it would do, when, and what happens if it fails?
What is Measure C?
Measure C, a Santa Clara ballot initiative based on recommendations from a “charter review committee” appointed by Gillmor and the council, will decide how the city will conduct its elections starting in 2022. According to an analysis crafted by City Attorney Brian Doyle, there are two potential outcomes:
• A “yes” vote will approve an amendment to the City Charter and split the city into three districts, with two representatives each.
• A “no” vote will return the city to at-large elections beginning in 2022, which is currently laid out within the City Charter’s original language.
Measure C needs a simple majority of voter support — 50 percent plus one — to become law. It could shield the city from future litigation, as it splits it into districts, though opponents such as Richard Konda, executive director of the Asian Law Alliance, say it doesn’t go far enough and want Santa Clara to keep its six districts. They have indicated another lawsuit could be filed if Measure C passes.
What if Measure C fails?
The Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters confirmed Wednesday that if Measure C fails, the city will return to its illegal at-large elections. Opponents, however, insist that a “no” vote on the measure would keep Santa Clara at six districts.
The districts were created in 2017 after a group of Asian American residents sued the city, claiming its at-large voting system had diluted representation of minority voters. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle agreed and ordered six districts for the 2018 and 2020 elections.
Konda, who was a part of the team of lawyers who sued the city, disagrees with Doyle’s interpretation that a “no” vote would return Santa Clara to an at-large voting system.
“He’s wrong, he’s just flat out wrong,” Konda said Wednesday. “He doesn’t know that much about voting rights. His job was to hire a law firm that would defend the city. They lost in court, now they’re trying to appeal it, and then they’re putting out this false kind of argument and smokescreen to confuse people.”
Konda boiled down the debate on what a “no” vote on Measure C means as differing opinions between lawyers. He said other lawyers — not involved in the case — read the judgement and agreed that the city must keep six districts if Measure C fails.
Councilmember Raj Chahal, also an opponent of Measure C, said returning to an at-large system is prohibited by Kuhnle’s ruling, pointing to where his decision says “the city and the Registrar of Voters are enjoined from holding at-large elections” for any councilmembers other than the mayor.
Despite the confusion, city leaders hope that passing Measure C will help nip future problems with the city’s election system — and potential litigation — in the bud.
“That’s why we in the city did a Charter Review Committee, because we wanted to have some kind of certainty for 2020,” Gillmor said, acknowledging the confusion about what comes next. “I think everyone has recognized that the at-large system does not work anymore in Santa Clara.”
Meanwhile, the city is waiting on its appeal of Kuhnle’s 2018 decision ordering six districts. If Santa Clara wins its appeal, it can return to its at-large system. If the city loses the appeal, it must maintain the six districts.
And if Measure C fails next week, Gillmor said that opens the door to more uncertainty and she isn’t sure what the city will do next.
Gillmor said the city will likely learn the results of the appeal before November.
A political fight
The fight has grown increasingly nasty, especially after Gillmor’s nemesis — the San Francisco 49ers — got involved in the fight to oppose Measure C and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on those efforts.
Then Padilla got involved in efforts to defeat Measure C, a move Gillmor called “an overreach of his role.”
Padilla visited Santa Clara last week to speak out against Measure C, calling it a part of a “strategic assault on fundamental voting rights across America” and saying it doesn’t live up to the state’s democratic ideals.
“Shockingly, Measure C here in the state of California in the year 2020 threatens to dilute the voting power of our diverse communities here in Santa Clara and restrict their opportunities to elect representatives of their choice,” Padilla said. “Here at the local level, simply put, Measure C does not live up to the democratic ideals that we hold near and dear. Similar policies have been struck down in the courts, time and again. It is bad policy, and it is bad for our democracy.”
Other lawmakers, such as Chahal, say going to voters to make these changes are necessary. He pointed to a government code that says charter cities, such as Santa Clara, do not need to go the ballot to adopt a measure to elect lawmakers by district.
The code also says the changes would be made “in furtherance of the purposes of the California Voting Rights Act.”
“We may not change the Charter for other things, but under CVRA, we can change the Charter legislatively,” Chahal said Tuesday, pointing to a memo of Palm Springs’ change as one of the cities that had already done so. “If 29 cities are wrong, then I would agree they were wrong and we cannot change it, but 29 cities have done that.”
Gillmor adamantly rebuffs this interpretation.
“The only people that can change the charter — rightly so — are the voters; they are the only people that can change it,” Gillmor said. “A judge can’t change our charter, only the people can change the charter. So we wanted to change the charter from at large.”
Gillmor is joined by Councilmembers Debi Davis, Kathy Watanabe and Teresa O’Neill in supporting the ballot measure, arguing that it would, in part, allow for greater representation through the chance for voters to find and elect quality candidates.
Still, worry lingers that Santa Clara could end up in court again. Konda and other plaintiffs told San José Spotlight that’s a strong possibility.