By Derek Wilson
Even as controversies over voting rights rage across the country, the City of San Rafael is taking a hard look at the constitutionality of its current election system.
The Nov. 8, 2022, local election will determine City Council representatives for the Gerstle Park-District 2 West and Dominican-Loch Lomond District 3. The district boundaries could be changed before then, however, based on data from the most recent census, which is expected to be released on Aug. 16.
As required by federal and statutory law, the district populations must be as balanced as possible. For San Rafael, that means the four districts would each ideally have a population of 14,712 residents. That is not currently the case, as Terra Linda-District 4 North has an estimated population of 15,540 people, while Loch Lomond-District 3 East has the smallest estimated population (13,711).
The imbalance also affects Gerstle Park-District 2 West and Canal-District 1. San Rafael’s total estimated deviation from the ideal is 12.43 percent across the four districts, which violates federal law.
“The Supreme Court has said over a series of cases that anything over 10 percent is unconstitutional,” said Chris Skinnell, an attorney with Nielsen Merksamer, who helped the city draw up its original district voting map. “Assuming these numbers turn out to be a fairly accurate representation of what the census looks like, there’s going to need to be some changes to balance that population back out.”
Skinnell suggested that some of the district lines could be redrawn. As a result, people who currently are represented by City Council member Maika Llorens Gulati in the Canal-District 1 could in 2022 be voting for a council member in District 2, now represented by Eli Hill.
One public comment scolded the City Council over concerns about a lack of representation on the City Council for minority residents, especially residents of the Canal District.
The deadline to adopt a final, readjusted map is April 17,2022, according to State law. The City will host at least four public meetings before and after the first proposed maps are drawn, likely in October.
“I didn’t imagine this elaborate of a process,” said Vice-Mayor Maribeth Bushey.
San Rafael did away with its at-large election process prior to the 2020 election in response to charges that the method violated the California Voting Rights Act, which prohibits public agencies from imposing or applying an at-large election method “that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election.”
A protected class is defined by the CVRA as “a class of voters who are members of a race, color, or language minority group.”
The City established a by-district election system and election sequence on Aug. 16, 2018, with a district map designating four voting districts. The elections code requires the redistricting process to be held following each federal decennial census.