Despite aiming toward a cumulative voting system for more than three years, Mission Viejo elections will occur using districts starting November 2022.
The City Council decided to move to a district-based election system Tuesday night during a closed session discussion and reported the action afterward.
During the past few years, many Orange County cities have made the change from the plurality voting system to district elections in order to comply with the California Voting Rights Act and lawsuits that claim at-large voting discriminates against minority voters.
These voters often congregate in one area but may not have the numbers to elect their preferred local leader, say voting rights advocates and city officials who have moved to district voting, calling it a solution for minority voters to gain a larger voice in an election.
After a 2018 lawsuit sparked the need for change, Mission Viejo city officials spent the last three years discussing potentially using cumulative voting instead of districts since the minority population is dispersed across the city, an issue that city officials say district elections won’t solve.
Cumulative voting allows voters to rank top candidates instead of choosing a single representative, and the city likely would have become the first in California to use the system if it had gotten approved by the state.
However, California state officials will not allow the cumulative voting method in Mission Viejo without legal action from the city. Instead, city officials decided to follow other municipal leaders’ decisions to form districts.
“The California Voting Act allows judicially approved alternatives to district-based voting,” Council member Greg Raths said at the Tuesday council meeting. “The worthy alternative includes cumulative or rank-choice voting. However, these options for change are seemingly too significant for state staff to authorize. Thus, as Sacramento will not allow rank-choice voting or cumulative voting to best serve our minority residents, we must now defer to the one-size-fits-all district voting remedy.”
Mission Viejo city officials have repeatedly stated that since minority residents live throughout the city — as opposed to one specific area — by-district voting would not solve the issue of racial discrimination in the at-large voting system.
Further, Raths added that although cumulative voting would better solve the issue, state guidelines prevent the city from adopting the change.
“It is unfortunate that the best interest of our minority voters cannot be served, but your City Council worked very hard to achieve a system that would give them a greater voice,” Raths said. “We had sincerely hoped for a better outcome for Mission Viejo minority voters, but Sacramento is not allowing any option other than district voting absent expensive legislative and legal efforts.”
The move to districts will cause issues for the current council, on which every member is up for reelection next year. 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. Therefore, four members might all be forced to run for the same district seat, leaving more spots open for new council members.
Just over a year before the election, many residents have questioned the time the council took to reach its decision, which comes after months of closed-session discussions and public comments urging the council to move forward.
Mission Viejo Mayor Trish Kelley also said during Tuesday’s meeting that the council will return in August with more information about the district map and other district voting methods.
Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.