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Vote for one candidate - several times: It could become legal in Santa Clarita elections

A judge has cleared the way for Santa Clarita to adopt a new election system called 'cumulative voting' which allows voters to cast multiple votes for a single candidate.
A judge has cleared the way for Santa Clarita to adopt a new election system called 'cumulative voting' which allows voters to cast multiple votes for a single candidate.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

Santa Clarita voters may become the first in California to elect city and community college officials by cumulative voting. The little-used system would allow voters to cast multiple votes for the same candidate. For example, in a City Council election to fill three seats, a Santa Clarita voter could cast three votes for just one candidate, or distribute votes to two or three candidates.

After hearing arguments on Monday, Superior Court Judge Terry Green approved cumulative voting in Santa Clarita city and the Santa Clarita Community College District. The ruling could help resolve lawsuits claiming violations of the California Voting Rights Act, according to attorney Kevin Shenkman. 

With cumulative voting, individuals who are part of a minority bloc of the population could amass their votes behind a single candidate and win a seat, Shenkman said. He represents two plaintiffs who had sued to eliminate the traditional at-large voting system used in Santa Clarita elections.  

The suit against the city, the college district and the William S. Hart Union High School District in Newhall alleged that Latinos, who make up 30 percent of the city's population, could not amass enough votes to win representation. The Hart high school district is in the process of dividing into voting districts for future elections.

But the city and community college boards wanted to avoid splitting their jurisdictions into districts. They reached a mediated resolution in January to use cumulative voting instead, Shenkman said. Monday's hearing was intended to confirm that cumulative voting is a legal remedy in California.

Santa Clarita makes no admission of a violation of the state voting rights laws in entering the settlement, said Brian Pierik, assistant city attorney.

The settlement also calls for city elections to move from April to coincide with state and federal elections in November of even-numbered years, he said.   That will be done either by consolidating city elections on the county ballot, or by the city holding its own elections on state and federal election days.

Non-Latino whites make up about 56 percent of the city population, with Asians representing 8.5 percent and African-Americans making up 3.5 percent. The city's lone Latino councilmember, Dante Acosta, was elected this year.

The California Voting Rights Act requires that cities, counties and other local governments abolish at-large voting systems if plaintiffs can show at trial that voting patterns are polarized along racial or ethnic lines.

The vast majority of governments that have faced voting rights lawsuits in California have chosen to abandon at-large voting systems in favor of districts. Those include Whittier, Compton, Anaheim and numerous school districts.

Santa Clarita's tactic of cumulative voting might offer another option to city councils reluctant to face the horse-trading and turf battles that can come with elective districts. Cumulative voting is used in Peoria, Illinois, and in Port Chester, New York.

The California Voting Rights Act requires governments to pay the legal costs of winning plaintiffs. That has tended to push local governments to abandon at-large voting rather than to defend the systems during protracted legal fights.

The city of Palmdale is the only jurisdiction in California to let its voting rights case go to trial. It lost the case, and the Supreme Court last month declined to take up the city's appeal. Palmdale is fighting a court order to hold district elections; but meanwhile, the city has been has been ordered to pay the plaintiff's $3.5 million legal costs.

For his Santa Clarita case, attorney Kevin Shenkman said his firm would collect $400,000 to $600,000 in legal fees.