Aliso Viejo residents in 2024 will get to pick City Council members via by-district elections as officials have embarked on laying the groundwork for dividing the city into five districts, a move that multiple Orange County cities have already made. 

The City Council has unanimously approved an ordinance to switch to a by-district voting process for the next election cycle.

The transition comes after the city was sent a letter by attorney Kevin Shenkman on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. Shenkman asked the city to voluntarily switch its at-large voting system to by-district elections or face a lawsuit.

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While council members and residents were in support of the change, they expressed concerns regarding the short time frame for the transition and the potential difficulties of districting in a smaller city. 

The letter cited the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, which was enacted to protect the voting power of minority residents and prevent minority candidates from being unfairly suppressed in elections. It also claimed that at-large elections dilute the voting power of Latino communities, which make up a significant portion of Aliso Viejo’s population, but are largely underrepresented in the city’s governing body. 

Recent data from the Census Bureau indicates that Latinos comprise 20% of the city’s roughly 52,000 residents.

Aliso Viejo’s current at-large election system allows for each of the council members to be selected from any part of the city, with multiple being allowed to come from one area. All residents vote for all five council member seats.

Opponents of an at-large voting system say that it allows majority groups to effectively vote as a bloc for their chosen candidates, limiting the voting power and influence of minority groups.

A by-district system would split the city into five districts with one council candidate being elected from each district. Voters would only be able to cast one vote for their own district. 

Some California residents have cited the voting act in persuading their cities to convert to by-district elections. An Aliso Viejo city staff report states that these cases are usually ruled in favor of the residents who take the legal action against the cities to get them to switch.

Shenkman has been involved in many California voting rights cases. He has represented claimants across Southern California, including in a 7-year legal battle against Santa Monica, a case that now sits before the California Supreme Court

In Orange County, after Shenkman sued San Juan Capistrano, a delay of a couple of weeks to initiate a transition to a by-district process cost the city $250,000 in fines. San Juan Capistrano completed the transition by June 2016.

Legal fees are capped for cities if they choose to voluntarily change the system, according to the staff report. The report also states that if they resist, the cap is removed and taxpayers can be forced to pay the difference.

After Anaheim was sued, a settlement eventually led to the implementation of by-district elections and the city paying just over $1 million in the claimants’ legal fees.

According to the Aliso Viejo staff report, no city has ever won a Voting Rights Act lawsuit.

City Attorney Scott Smith recommended to council members that they switch to by-district voting. 

“The fees could be astronomical,” Smith told the City Council at a mid-March meeting. “They’re almost always in the millions, and the city of Santa Monica right now is litigating a case where the demand by the plaintiffs, actually by this plaintiff, exceeds $30 million. So we would not recommend that you go that course.” 

Councilmember Tiffany Ackley asked if any city had ever successfully resisted Shenkman’s request, to which Smith responded that no city has “ever come close.”

The request asks that the transition be completed by June, a timeline that council members and some residents find difficult to achieve. 

Ackley inquired about the consequences of being late in making the change. Smith answered that the cap on attorney’s fees would be removed and the city would be forced to pay an exponentially greater amount.

At a public hearing during an early April meeting, resident Anand Rao also shared concerns about the timeline. 

“The schedule is compressed,” Rao said. “We now have 15 days to create a map, and the population portion is really complicated.”

Sean McMorris, the transparency, ethics, and accountability program manager with the California division of Common Cause, explained in a phone interview how by-district elections improve minority representation. Common Cause advocates for equal representation in government and elections, according to its website.

“You have a greater chance as a minority group, or protected class, if a significant portion of that protected class is concentrated in their own district, which will then allow their vote to have more gravity in who they elect,” McMorris said.

“There’s no silver bullet, by the way, to protect a minority voter’s vote to make a difference,” McMorris continued. “But this is an attempt to at least address the problem under the best means we currently have available.”

McMorris also referred to a 2019 study whose findings suggest that by-district elections increased minority representation on city councils by 10% to 12%, and even more in communities with significant Latino populations. 

Aliso Viejo Councilmember Ross Chun said in a phone interview that he understands the demand for by-district elections, but he anticipates difficulties in districting due to the small size of the city. 

“We are just 8 square miles; we’re a small city, and dividing us up into five districts would be difficult,” Chun said. “If you look at our council right now, everyone lives within a couple of miles of each other … it’s just that we’re a small city, geographically.” 

As the transition moves forward, Aliso Viejo will have to pay $37,500 in plaintiff’s legal fees and around $31,000 to hire an expert demographer to create the maps, according to the staff report.

A city staff presentation at the April meeting included the districting procedure and timeline as well as demographics of voter ethnicities throughout the city from recent election cycles.

The map used for districting will be chosen at a meeting on the subject in mid-May. A final reading and adoption of the ordinance is planned for early June, unless the city needs to utilize an extended deadline of later in the month. 


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