WatchSonoma Watch

Santa Rosa voting practices could be target of lawsuit



One of the most vexing disputes over district elections focuses on the level of risk facing Santa Rosa for being sued under the California Voting Rights Act for having “racially polarized voting.”

The law, passed in 2001, made it easier for minority groups to prove their votes were being overwhelmed by those of white voters. Several communities have since been sued, including Hanford, Modesto and Madera, in some cases resulting in the cities paying millions in legal fees and being required to switch to district elections.

“We’re seeing these sweep the state,” said Douglas Johnson, president of National Demographics Corporation.

Supporters of Measure Q on the Nov. 6 ballot say that instead of waiting to be sued, the city should switch to district elections now, which would protect it from such action.

“My opinion is there is a real vulnerability to the city,” said former Sonoma County Counsel Steven Woodside, who lives in Fountaingrove.

The fact that so few Latinos have been elected to public office in the city (Ernesto Olivares became the first Latino council member in 2008) and that higher concentrations of Latinos live on the city’s west side would likely make it easier for attorneys to make their case, Woodside said.

Also given demographic trends, it is clear Latinos will continue to make up a larger percentage of the population, he said.

“This is, in my view, inevitable, so why not take care of it now?” Woodside said.

But Herb Williams, the political consultant helping direct the Measure Q opposition, is among those who call this a “scare tactic.” They say there is no evidence of racially polarized voting in the city.

Determining whether such a pattern exists is complicated, and to date no one has attempted it in Santa Rosa, said attorney and Santa Rosa Schools board member Bill Carle.

Experts would need to do a complex analysis comparing voting patterns with demographic data to determine whether the pattern exists. Absent that, no one can say for sure, he said.

“There is no evidence that would suggest that we are in danger of being sued, just like there is no evidence that we are clean of racially polarized voting,” Carle said.

Nor is there any suggestion that the city is being considered as a target for a suit in the near future, largely because there are other communities with greater histories of racial imbalances, Johnson said.

“Santa Rosa is not on anyone’s bright-red target list,” he said.

Williams said he supported putting district elections on the ballot even though he opposes them in practice because he believes if voters were given the chance to weigh in on the subject, the legal risk to the city would be lessened even if district elections are rejected.

“That’s exactly the opposite of reality,” Johnson said.

Putting district elections to a vote is “dangerous” because if Latinos vote for it and the whites vote it down, that provides evidence of a problem.

“Allowing the majority to show its prejudice by voting against what the Latinos want does not help your defense,” Johnson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @citybeater

7 Responses to “Santa Rosa voting practices could be target of lawsuit”

  1. Snarky says:

    Critic at Large:

    Congress, both the House & the Senate, represent the country by state votes which are the same thing as DISTRICTs.

    The State Legislature represents the public through DISTRICTS.

    Your statement is totally uneducated when you claim that DISTRICT elections in Santa Rosa would only represent “a few.”

    The unions have nothing at all to do with DISTRICT voting. Quit confusing yourself.

    The absolute best way to ensure the voters are powerful is to elect reps by DISTRICT. The way to keep voters weak is to have ‘at large’ style elections.

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  2. Snarky says:

    The criminal government rarely concerns itself with being sued…. because …. even if they lose, they get to continue in their criminality until the last second and then only have to pay out $$$ that they steal from us.

    Take the FBI for example. It knew it was ILLEGALLY installing tracking devices on thousands of people (over 3,000 per reports)…

    Not only was the FBI ILLEGALLY installing car tracking devices without a court order… they were ILLEGALLY trespassing in some cases onto private property to get to their targeted vehicles.

    Well, they were sued. And, they continued to monitor those ILLEGAL tracking devices until just a few months ago when the US SUPREME COURT ruled their activities were ILLEGAL.

    Only then, after the US Supreme Court ruled them illegal … did the FBI turn off their tracking devices.


    Google the story if you didn’t know about it.

    Your criminal government at work. Just be sure to pay those “taxes” that it demands of you.

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  3. John Galt says:


    I wouldn’t dismiss the lopsided support of this measure so quickly- reading the list of supporters is like a Who’s Who of liberal politics and special interests in Sonoma County.

    Your snap judgments about the people opposing Q are quite stereotypical and insulting- and inaccurate, if you knew who the other posters were that have posted.

    Let me point out that the “eastside power structure” were voted into office by people from throughout the city, because the elections are at-large.

    The answer is not to radically change the system and experiment with a new/untested approach for Santa Rosa, but instead for voters to inform themselves, and if they think that there is geographic inequity, use their votes to remedy the situation.

    So, for example, this election someone who felt that the west side of the city was under-represented would vote for Don Taylor, who lives on the west side… and you’d vote against people like Caroline Banuelos, Julie Combs and Erin Carlstrom, who all live east of the 101.

    Informed voters are much more effective at making a change than trying to impose diversity on people who insist on acting like victims. There’s no magic to getting someone elected- just good politicking and hard work.

    I look forward to your forthcoming efforts toward geographical equity in the form of strong support for a bonafide west-side candidate like Don Taylor.

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  4. bear says:

    Oh come on! Everything is NOT a “liberal conspiracy” or a union plot. If anything, districts would make it harder for unions to have influence, because they would have to get 4 votes from dispersed districts. As opposed to getting 4 votes from the historic eastside power structure.

    If you don’t like things as they are, how do you think they got that way? Seems like there is sufficient “infighting and political posturing” for anyone as it is.

    If anything, the anti-Q people are monied conservatives protecting their historic priveleges. Thanks for clearing that up for me.

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  5. Critic at Large says:

    Measure Q is another liberal tactic to give the public unions and special interests more control over the Santa Rosa City Council. Look who is supporting it, the public unions and the left.

    It’s intent is to divide Santa Rosa and give more power to special interests.

    Say no to Q and keep Santa Rosa out of the hands of SEIU, the teachers union and special interests. The city council needs to represent all of the residents not just a few in a district.

    Not much gets down now, but if passes, it will be total infighting and political posturing.

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  6. Kirstin says:

    Trying to scare the people of Santa Rosa into voting against their own best interests — that’s what one can conclude from this article. Anyone can sue the city for myriad reasons; does that mean that the city should just go into paralysis and do nothing for fear of being sued? No, or course not.

    Santa Rosa is a city of about 167,000 people. As I’ve noted before, in this article, http://www.nlc.org/build-skills-networks/resources/cities-101/municipal-elections, first linked by Grey Whitmore here on WSC, it is clear that cities between 70,000-199,999 — and at about 167,000, Santa Rosa obviously falls into that category — still use the at-large voting system most (44%). District elections come in at 31%, but also in use is the mixed-system (25%), also called the hybrid system. Why are SR city officials unwilling to even talk about mixed-system when clearly other municipalities HAVE put this into practice?

    Santa Rosa is not too large for at-large elections, and the voters have every right to go to the polls and vote NO on Measure Q, District Elections. Pay no attention, voters. to the scare tactics that the PD, in this article, is repeating to try to deter you from voting NO.

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  7. bear says:

    I can report that the demographics cited in the story are correct. Moreover, if you look at the history of the city, the east side has provided a huge majority of Council members.

    But I’m neither strongly in favor of, nor opposed to, district elections. First, because they don’t address the issue of people in the unincorporated southwest and Fulton, and even Larkfield-Wikiup – who are affected by City decisions in major ways but can’t vote at all.

    But second, we need to understand that some attorneys will sue anything that moves because they see the chance of big fees to them. I really don’t want to see desperately needed funds in the pockets of greedy attorneys.

    So I guess I come down in favor, based on Steve Woodside’s reasoning – if it’s inevitable, let’s do it now. Better to get the flu shot than the flu?

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