District Elections Explained

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Traducción en Español - District Elections

The City of Vista received a letter from the law firm of Shenkman & Hughes dated February 13 claiming the city is violating the California Voting Rights Act (Elec. Code §§ 14025-14032) because Council members are elected at-large rather than by districts. Dozens of local government agencies in California have faced similar challenges in recent years, including our neighboring cities of Oceanside, Carlsbad and San Marcos.

The Vista City Council (5-0) voted March 28, (March 28, 2017 presentation) to voluntarily move to district elections, taking advantage of a legal protection that enables cities to have a say in district boundaries and avoid costly litigation.

The city has retained Douglas Johnson, an expert demographer, at National Demographics Corporation, to draw district maps for consideration, according to the requirements of the Federal Voting Rights Act and the California Voting Rights Act.

This protection applies only to cities that pass a resolution within 45 days of receiving a demand letter alleging a violation of the California Voting Rights Act. The resolution must indicate the city’s intent to move to district elections and the plan to make the change. 

Public Participation Kits l Draw a Map l Draft Maps


What is the basis of the lawsuit against the city?

The law firm contends the City of Vista’s at-large voting system “dilutes the ability of Latinos, (‘a protected class’), to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Vista’s council elections.” The letter cites instances where Latino candidates ran unsuccessfully for City Council yet received “significant support” from Latino voters. The letter states that Latinos represent about 48.4 percent of Vista’s population.

Why haven’t cities prevailed in challenging the allegations?

To date, no public agency that has fought a lawsuit has prevailed, with some paying legal fees in the millions. The threshold to establish liability under the California Voting Rights Act is considered low. The Federal Voting Rights Act requires four conditions to be met to prove a city is not in compliance. The California Voting Rights Act only has two.

What's the time frame?

The letter was mailed February 7, 2017. By law, the city had 45 days to voluntarily agree to switch to district elections. That deadline was March 31. After passing the resolution (March 28, 2017), the City Council has 90 days to adopt an ordinance (a city law) making the change and identifying the districts.

What Have Other Cities Done?

Almost without exception other cities have either voluntarily, or been forced to adopt changes to their method of electing City Council members. Many have settled claims out of court by essentially agreeing to voluntarily shift to district elections. Others have defended challenges through the courts. Those agencies that attempted to defend their existing “at large” system of elections in court have incurred significant legal costs because the California Voting Rights Act gives plaintiffs the right to recover attorney fees. A few examples include:

  • Palmdale: $4.5 million
  • Modesto: $3 million
  • Anaheim: $1.1 million
  • Whittier: $1 million
  • Santa Barbara: $600,000
  • Tulare Hospital: plaintiff attorneys paid $500,000
  • Madera Unified: plaintiff attorneys asked for $1.8 million, but received about $170,000
  • Hanford Joint Union Schools: $118,000
  • Merced City: $42,000

How are districts drawn?

Under the California Voting Rights Act, districts must:

  • Include communities of interest
  • Be compact
  • Be contiguous
  • Have visible (natural and man‐made) boundaries
  • Include respect for past voter selections
  • Plan for future growth 

What's the difference between "at large" elections and "district" elections?

Vista currently has an at-large election system, where voters of the entire city elect all members of the City Council. “By district” election systems carve the city into geographic sections. Voters in each section choose their City Council representative, who must also live in that district.

How will by-district elections work?

The City Council is currently elected through an at-large or citywide election system. Voters in the by-district election system only vote for the City Council seats up for election in their specific district. All four current Council Members will serve as at-large Council Members until the end of their current terms. At the end of their current terms, Council Members can run for re-election by district if they live in a district up for election at that time.

  • Council Member John Aguilera: November, 2018
  • Council Member John Franklin: November, 2018
  • Council Member Amanda Young Rigby: November, 2020
  • Council Member Joe Green: November, 2020

What is a protected class?

A protected class refers to voters who are members of a race, color or language minority group.

Who creates the district boundaries?

Professional demographers are hired by cities to create proposed district boundaries.

How is the public involved in choosing districts?

The City of Vista has been and is still holding a number of public hearings and public meetings and community forums (April 29, 2017 presentation).  The City has made an online tool available where community members can provide input on district boundaries.  

How is the change approved?

Vista may voluntarily switch from an at-large election system to district election system via an ordinance passed by the City Council.


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