Tustin is on track to becoming another Orange County city to make the switch from at-large elections to district elections — stemming from the threat of a lawsuit for allegedly violating state voting law.
A public worship is slated to be held Tuesday, to discuss the transition process and seek resident input on the transition to districts.
The council’s move follows at least a half a dozen Orange County cities that changed their election process in recent years after facing threats of litigation from voting rights groups that argue at-large elections dilute minority voices.
Cities including Lake Forest, Orange, Costa Mesa, Anaheim, Buena Park, Fullerton, Garden Grove, and Placentia have already switched to district elections, while Mission Viejo started the process last week.
These cities all faced lawsuits, or threats of lawsuits regarding violation of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, which was created to prevent racially polarized voting.
Tustin is one the latest cities to examine switching to district elections after receiving a legal warning for its at-large elections from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The national nonprofit civil rights organization sent a letter to Tustin council members in June 2020 threatening litigation for an alleged violation of the state’s voting rights act and the dilution of Latino votes that prevented minorities from electing candidates of their choice.
“At-large elections too often result in freezing out significant communities that have different policy views than the majority; Tustin governance would improve with greater inclusion for the Latino voting community,” said Thomas A. Saenz, president of the civil rights organization in a news release.
Roughly 40% of the city’s residents are Latino, according to the US Census Bureau.
Only one Latino council member — Beckie Gomez — has been elected in the last twenty years, according to the letter.
The council discussed the potential litigation in closed session at its Aug. 3 meeting.
Following the closed door discussion, city council members voted unanimously to launch district elections by November of 2022, as the legal warning demanded.
Although the city complied, the city says its at-large election system doesn’t violate any law including the California Voting Rights Act. The city complied to avoid the costs of a lawsuit, according to the resolution.
On Tuesday, council members will host the first of multiple meetings with Tustin residents to explain district elections and to source community input on a handful of considerations.
The council will use public input to decide “the number of districts to establish; whether to establish a City-wide Mayor; the boundaries and composition of future Council districts; and the sequence of future district elections,” according to the meeting’s public notice.
The Tustin City Council is currently made up of five members, including a mayor and mayor pro-tem.
Members are elected at-large for four-year terms. Elections are staggered so that only two or three seats are up for reelection every two years.
The next municipal election is scheduled for November 8, 2022 and is set to be done through a district election process.