In recent years there has been a fair amount of press about lawsuits brought under the California Voting Rights Act. As near as I can tell, this law essentially requires cities to draw council districts in such a way that the number of districts where the minority citizens-of-voting-age population (CVAP) forms a majority of the total district CVAP is roughly proportional to the total minority population as a proportion of the total population of the city. That is, the number of seats that should be "allocated" to minorities is determined by total population, but the determination of whether a given district is allocated to the minority is determined by the CVAP, not the total population. For instance, if a city has a 7-member council and 30% of the population is a minority group, two of the seats should be allocated to that minority; this means two districts must be drawn wherein the CVAP of that minority group forms a majority of the total district CVAP. (I am assuming here that other criteria for application of the law have been met, e.g., that there has been satisfactorily demonstration that the minority group is insufficiently represented.)

What I am curious about is whether it can happen that it is impossible to draw such districts due to wide demographic disparities between the total population and the CVAP, and if so, what is supposed to happen under the law.

To take a random example, according to data from the US Census, the city of Santa Maria has a total population that is roughly 71% Hispanic, while the CVAP is about 49% Hispanic. Supposing the city had a 7-member council, 71% would suggest there ought to be 5 out of 7 districts where Hispanics should constitute a majority to ensure proportional electoral representation. But because the Hispanic CVAP is only 49% of the overall CVAP, it could be difficult or impossible (depending on the geographical distribution of the population) to actually draw seven districts with equal total population while giving Hispanics a majority of the CVAP in 5 of them. (In fact Santa Maria has a 5-member council, but I'm just using these numbers to illustrate the kind of demographic situation I'm talking about.)

So what I'm curious about is, how is this sort of thing supposed to work? What happens if the demographics and the geography result in irreconcilable disparities between total population and CVAP? Or what happens if districts can technically be drawn to satisfy the requirements, but must be obviously and severely gerrymandered to do so? Has this question ever been raised?

I'm not actually sure that the California Voting Right Act strictly requires that cities play off the total population and CVAP in this way, but that appears to be the basis for some of the decisions that have taken place (see e.g. references to CVAP here). I would welcome an answer that clarifies the overall mechanics of exactly what cities must do to comply.

(Also, just to avoid any misunderstanding, I want to make clear that I'm not asking this to try to cast doubt on the CVRA or its goals. The reason I'm asking is that the city where I live recently underwent a redistricting to comply with this law, and asked citizens to come up with district maps meeting the criteria outlined above. I tried my hand and found it rather difficult to do, and I wondered if other cities with larger population/CVAP disparities might have even greater difficulties in achieving proportional representation.)


According to the act:

Upon a finding of a violation of Section 14027 and Section 14028, the court shall implement appropriate remedies, including the imposition of district-based elections, that are tailored to remedy the violation.


The fact that members of a protected class are not geographically compact or concentrated may not preclude a finding of racially polarized voting, or a violation of Section 14027 and this section, but may be a factor in determining an appropriate remedy.

I have no idea what an "appropriate remedy" would be, in this situation. I guess the law leaves it for the court to decide.

In practice, it might be difficult to demonstrate that racially polarized voting is occurring, if the minority is not concentrated anywhere. Also, the act says, as its main point:

An at-large method of election may not be imposed or applied in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election, as a result of the dilution or the abridgment of the rights of voters who are members of a protected class, as defined pursuant to Section 14026.

If switching to district elections would not improve the situation because appropriate districts are impossible to draw, then it's hard to say that the at-large method is, in fact, "impairing the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or its ability to influence the outcome of an election".

This act does not specify how districts should be drawn, by the way. I did find Election Code Section 22000, which says districts must be "as far as practicable, equal in population and in compliance with Section 1973 of Title 42 of the United States Code, as amended, to the extent those provisions are applicable." There's actually nothing currently at that section of federal law, because it was moved, but it refers to the federal Voting Rights Act. It's probably beyond the scope of the question to determine whether the federal Voting Rights Act actually requires the districts to be drawn the way you describe.

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