Just over a year out from the midterm elections, Mission Viejo still doesn’t have an approved voting system in place that will determine who steps into office when the entire City Council is up for election next year.
The city is being forced to change from its current plurality voting system after being sued by Kevin Shenkman, a lawyer with the Southwest Voting Project, in 2018.
Shenkman has routinely sued cities throughout the state over the last decade under the California Voting Rights Act, alleging the plurality vote system used by most cities disenfranchises minority opinions and creates racially polarized voting.
Plurality voting allows each voter one vote, and whichever candidates win the most votes get elected, even if they don’t attain a majority.
Most cities, including Anaheim, Santa Ana and Fullerton, opted to shift to district elections, setting up each seat as a separate race, while the vote for mayor remained a citywide election.
But Mission Viejo’s City Attorney Bill Curley has been adamant that a shift to district elections would do more harm than good for residents.
Instead, he wants the city to implement a system called cumulative voting.
Under this system, voters would receive a vote for each open seat, and can allocate some or all of their votes to a single candidate or choose to spread them out between different seats.
“We want to do it because we believe it’s the right thing, we think it’ll give a better voice to our minority voters,” Curley said in a phone call with Voice of OC Monday morning.
Currently, that isn’t an approved voting method for general law cities, and Mission Viejo has been fighting with the California Secretary of State’s office for three years now to change that.
Districts would also force a massive upheaval for the sitting council, as four of the five council members live within a two mile radius of one another, according to a 2017 map produced by the city showing potential districts.
The city council has repeatedly voted to extend their own terms while trying to figure out the problem, running on the promise of a two year term that has been extended to four for every member of the council.
But the last time the council got the extension approved in June 2020, Orange County Superior Court Judge Walter Schwarm set a hard deadline for the 2022 election, making it clear that an extension would not be granted again under any circumstances.
Over a year later, the council has yet to discuss the issue in open session beyond Curley answering questions from public commenters criticizing the council for not making a decision.
But behind closed doors, the council has repeatedly discussed the issue at the start of their meetings.
The delay in choosing a new system hasn’t gone unnoticed by the public, who have started questioning why the council hasn’t brought the issue up for a public discussion.
“As a citizen and resident I am concerned with what appears to be delay tactics and subterfuge and an effort to avoid implementing district based elections. It is now time to stop funding the city attorney’s hope with our tax dollars.”Resident Walt Lawson, who has asked the council to schedule a discussion multiple times
When asked by reporters, Curley said the city was not currently looking to push the deadline again, and wanted a decision to inform voters and candidates what they were looking at even if it was district voting.
“I’m happy there will be some response to the racially polarized voting we have, not the best, but half a loaf is better than none,” Curley said. “We gave it a damn good fight, and no one can say we just blew it off.”
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.