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Paso Robles looks into other cities and how different election systems are working in those communities 

Paso Robles residents could be voting for their City Council members through a by-district election as soon as 2020—unless the city can find an alternative.

"Kind of uniformly, the community input has been no one is happy about having to move to district elections. We're clearly being forced to do it," Jim Cogan, assistant city manager, said.

After being threatened with a lawsuit last year, Paso is gearing up for the final public hearing in a continued discussion about the best way to change the city's electoral system from at-large to by-district. In August 2018, the city received a letter from Kevin Shenkman of the Shenkman and Hughes law firm, alleging that Paso's at-large electoral system polarized the Latino population's vote. The firm claimed that Paso Robles' electoral system violated the California Voting Rights Act and demanded that the city change to a by-district system.

Cogan said the city believes that Shenkman is incorrect and that its current election system is representative of Paso's entire population.

"If you were to suggest, as Shenkman did, that the Latino population is not sufficiently represented or has not historically been sufficiently represented, then one would assume a by-district solution would be logical if our Latino population all lived in the same area of town, but our Latino population does not live in the same area of town," Cogan said.

According to July 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, about 40 percent of the city population identifies as Hispanic or Latino.

He said because the city has a diverse population that's spread throughout the city, a by-district system would actually dilute the power of Latino voters because the population is being separated into districts.

"We're looking at how we could actually meet the goals of the California Voting Rights Act because the one-size-fits-all solution is actually counterproductive to the stated goals of the act," he said.

While the city is going through the public hearing process to comply with Shenkman's demands, it's also looking into alternative election systems that would allow the city to continue with an at-large system.

It's currently researching ranked-choice voting and cumulative voting. Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank multiple candidates in order of preference.

Cumulative voting allows each voter as many votes as there are candidates; the voter has the choice to give all votes to one candidate or varying numbers to several. Cogan said the city is looking at how Mission Viejo in Orange County has moved to a cumulative voting system in July 2018.

According to a lawsuit settlement in September 2017, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project—a nonprofit Latino voting rights group—pressured Mission Viejo to switch to by-district elections. After the city underwent public hearings and conducted studies, it decided to stick with its at-large system. Using the Shenkman and Hughes law firm, the nonprofit sued the city in March 2018.

Shenkman and the city came to an agreement that a district-based system wouldn't work for Mission Viejo, so the parties agreed to a cumulative-based system, the settlement states. Mission Viejo is slated to elect all five of its City Council members through the new system in November 2020.

The cities of Lompoc and Santa Maria had their first district-based elections last November. Both cities were pressed to switch from citywide to district elections through the threat of litigation as well. Gloria Soto, Santa Maria's 3rd District City Council member who was elected in 2018, believes the district-based system was the right move.

Soto said that more than 70 percent of Santa Maria is Latino and an immigrant farmworker community.

"For a long time, it felt as though our city wasn't being represented by folks who understood the struggles that so many of our families face here in our community," she said, "by someone who was raised by farmworking parents. I remember the struggles that my family faced by just trying to provide adequate housing for us, food on the table, and the difficulties of trying to navigate the educational school system to support me and my younger brother."

When the push finally came for Santa Maria to change to district elections, Soto was helping to scout a candidate in the 3rd District—her district—when she realized that she could represent her community as a person who was born and raised in the city and as someone who understands the working-class community.

She found that the greatest benefit from district-based elections, aside from representation, was voter engagement.

"I was able to door-knock not once, not twice, but three times to people's doors," Soto said. "I was able to walk my entire district multiple times, and we had a really strong following, and I think district elections really make that even more effective and even more possible."

Soto said she firmly believes that there isn't anything more powerful than a community being able to say that their representative is not only accessible but is someone they know or is even their neighbor. Δ

Staff writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com

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