Sunnyvale, Santa Clara voters deciding on moves to district-based elections

Sunnyvale residents with Measure B and Santa Clara residents with Measure C are deciding on changes to their voting systems in Tuesday's primary election, following moves by numerous cities in the Bay Area and statewide to transition to district-based voting in recent years.

In 2018, Santa Clara lost a lawsuit claiming its at-large voting system was diluting minority votes, and held its first district-based election in November that year. The Asian Law Alliance, supporting the plaintiffs, said not a single Asian-American had been elected to the City Council in Santa Clara history despite being a majority of its population.

The city chose to split its voting into six districts with all residents casting a vote for mayor, instead of all residents voting for the mayor and all council members in the previous at-large system.

Though the city is still appealing the court's ruling that it violated the state Voting Rights Act, Santa Clara is now considering changing its boundaries to delineate three districts with two representatives for each district. Measure C would change the city charter, keeping the six-district system for the general election in November and updating it to three districts for the 2022 election.

The court's ruling in 2018 didn't affect the city charter, which still supports the at-large voting system. If Measure C fails, the city will have to return to the drawing board next year.

Supporters of the change, including Mayor Lisa Gillmor and council members Teresa O'Neill and Kathy Watanabe, say three shared districts will allow council members to work more efficiently in larger and busier districts, and make it cheaper to run for office compared to the at-large system.

Those who oppose Measure C say the six-district election in 2018 produced a diverse and representative City Council, and they believe a three-district system will again quell minority votes and pose the same violations to the Voting Rights Act as the at-large system.

Vice Mayor Patricia Mahan, City Councilwoman Karen Hardy and the Silicon Valley NAACP are among those who oppose Measure C.

San Jose, Menlo Park, Fremont, Martinez, Concord, Redwood City, Richmond, and several other cities throughout California have switched to district-based voting to avoid legal repercussions.

Sunnyvale, whose at-large system currently allows council members to elect the mayor, voted in 2018 to consider the transition to a district system, and began an outreach process to collect boundary maps and input in January of last year.

The approved district map for Measure B on Tuesday's ballot can be found here.