By Khalida Sarwari
Under the threat of a possible lawsuit, the Sunnyvale City Council agreed at a special meeting Wednesday to consider changing the way council members are elected from a citywide vote system to one based on districts.
The council, whose seven members all are white, decided the change should be studied with the intent of putting a measure before voters on the November 2020 ballot.
“This is a huge governance model change for the city of Sunnyvale,” Mayor Glenn Hendricks said at the meeting.
Currently, council members are elected “at-large” by all voters for numbered seats every four years. Switching to a district election system would require an amendment to the city’s charter.
Under a district system, council candidates run in separate, carved-out geographical areas whose residents choose their individual representatives. The candidates must reside in the district they want to represent.
According to advocates of district voting, the system gives minority candidates a better opportunity to get elected because the votes of minority residents wouldn’t be diluted as they tend to be in at-large elections. Critics argue that council members may represent only the interests of their own districts and not necessarily those of the whole city.
If Sunnyvale switches to district elections, it would join a string of other Bay Area cities that have done so recently, including Fremont, Menlo Park and Morgan Hill. Santa Clara appealed a court order to move from an at-large election system to one with six districts in November. The city was sued by the Asian Law Alliance on grounds that it violated the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the city’s Asian vote.
Santa Clara contends a 2002 state law that makes it easier for minority groups to prove their votes are diluted in at-large elections is being used to force the switch to district elections. Sunnyvale officials Wednesday sounded the alarm they too could be sued if they don’t make the switch.
After four hours of discussion and input from nearly a dozen speakers, many of whom supported the change, the council decided the city should start doing some public outreach in multiple languages, create a citizens advisory committee and draft an implementation plan.
Mason Fong and John Cordes, who are competing for the same seat on the council, both have come out publicly in support of changing the election system.
“Increased diversity in our city’s representation… could lead to more resources that address the needs of our diverse community such as establishing an Office of Cultural Affairs that works on issues like language access and community outreach to Sunnyvale’s cultural communities,” Fong said.
Cordes argued that changing to a district system would not only enable grassroots candidates like himself to run a cheaper campaign, but it also benefits residents and boosts voter participation.
“The candidates would have the opportunity to talk directly with more of the residents in their districts. The elected council members serving them would have a clearer idea of their constituents’ priorities,” he said.