District Elections FAQs

What is the difference between “at large” and “district” elections?

The City of San Mateo currently elects its five City Council members “at large,” meaning each registered voter in the City has the opportunity to vote for all open City Council seats in an election.

Under a district-based election system, the City is separated into geographic sections (districts). Voters within each district will vote only for candidates living within the same district; voters will not vote for candidates outside of their own district.

Why is the City moving to district elections? 

In May 2021, the City received a certified letter from attorney Scott J. Rafferty asserting that the City’s current at-large council member electoral system may violate the California Voting Rights Act (the “CVRA”) and stating that the City should voluntarily change to a district-based election system for electing City Council Members. Under the CVRA, if there is minimal evidence of racially polarized voting, then elections are to be held by district. Upon receipt of such a letter, the City could agree to transition to district elections, or be forced to defend against a lawsuit asserting a CVRA violation.  

What is “racially polarized voting”?

Racially polarized voting exists when voters of different racial or ethnic groups exhibit different candidate preferences or electoral choices in an election, as compared to the rest of the electorate. Under the CVRA, methodologies for establishing racially polarized voting are defined by case law enforcing the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 (52 U.S.C. Sec. 10301 et seq.).  

What are the Federal and California Voting Rights Acts?

The Federal Voting Rights Act (FVRA) was adopted in 1965 and is intended to protect the rights of all citizens to participate in the voting process. The CVRA was passed in the California State Legislature in 2001, based on the Legislature’s belief that minorities and other members of protected classes were being denied the opportunity to have representation of their choosing at the local level because of a number of issues associated with at-large elections. Upon a finding of a violation of the CVRA, the act requires that “the court shall implement appropriate remedies, including the imposition of district-based elections that are tailored to remedy the violation.” As such, the default remedy and the clearly identified remedy by the Legislature is district-based elections.

Have other cities encountered this required change from at large to by district elections? What did they do?

Hundreds of cities, school districts and other local agencies in California have faced similar challenges in recent years. To date, no city has successfully defended a California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit. This statistic could change as there are cities currently in litigation over the CVRA.

Other cities have voluntarily or been forced to adopt changes from at large to district elections. While some cities have settled claims out of court by agreeing to shift to district elections, others have defended at-large elections through the court system, have lost and have incurred significant legal costs because the CVRA gives plaintiffs the right to recover attorney fees and a judge draws the districts rather than the City.

What is the process for transitioning to district elections?

The districting process timeline is prescribed by the California Elections Code Section 10010. On June 21, 2021, the City Council adopted a resolution of intent to transition to district elections, and updated the process schedule in a July 19, 2021 resolution.

The City Council approved schedule includes five required public hearings, five community workshops, and numerous pop-up events. The process involves gathering communities of interest testimony, collecting community-submitted draft maps, and accepting feedback on the final district map. The Council would then consider an ordinance adopting the final district map and an election sequence on or before Nov. 15, 2021. The first by-district City Council election would be held in November 2022.

What criteria is used to draw the districts and who creates them?

Many factors may be considered, but population equality is the most important. Other factors include:

  • Topography: natural barriers, boundaries or landmarks
  • Geography: major streets and neighborhood blocks
  • Cohesiveness: contiguity, integrity and compactness of the area
  • Communities of interest: established neighborhoods, groups with cultural bonds, common issues or concerns, voting precincts or other types of divisions

Community input and Census data will be used to create districts. The City has hired professional demographer Redistricting Partners to help create proposed district boundaries. Beginning in August 2021, the community will have access to ‘public mapping tool kits’ to provide feedback on how districts could be drawn. The City’s hired demographer will draft proposed maps that ensure compliance with the Federal Voting Rights Act and the California Voting Rights Act requirements. The City Council would then adopt the final district map by ordinance.

How can I participate?

Residents can participate through a variety of in-person or remote opportunities. View the schedule for a list of public hearings, community workshops and pop-up events.

You can also participate by submitting your Communities of Interest form, using our online mapping tool expected for release in August 2021, or by emailing districtelections@cityofsanmateo.org.

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