San Luis Obispo faces legal threat over at-large elections

Dec 5, 2019

Update 12/05/19

San Luis Obispo’s attorney says the city now has until the end of January to either start changing the way it elects council members, or decide to fight a legal threat over its current election system.

As KCBX News first reported on Monday, San Luis Obispo administrators received a letter on November 13 demanding a change in its citywide—or at-large—system. The letter threatened a lawsuit under the allegation that citywide elections are unfair to protected minority groups, and that district elections are more equitable under the California Voting Rights Act.

“In the last few years dozens of California cities have received similar ‘demand letters,’ all related to provisions in the 2002 California Voting Rights Act,” San Luis Obispo City Attorney Christin Dietrick. “This state law seeks to ensure that the votes of protected minority groups are not diluted in a manner that precludes them from influencing elections.”

Currently, all San Luis Obispo residents vote for the same candidates for city council and mayor. Under the district system, the city is divided into districts and only residents in each district can vote for their city council representative, and those candidates must live in the district.

According to a memo Dietrick sent out late Thursday afternoon, just because the city received the legal threat doesn’t mean it will inevitably change systems. But city officials do have a lot to weigh; Dietrick points out that if San Luis Obispo is sued, and loses, the law requires cities to pay all legal fees, which could stack up to several million dollars.

Between now and January 31, 2020, the city intends to investigate “alternative paths to resolution that may achieve even greater diversity and inclusion in City elections than could be achieved through districting, considering the City’s composition and distribution of voters,” according to Dietrick.


Santa Maria, Paso Robles and King City are among the dozens of California cities transitioning from at-large to district-based elections. Many are switching because of legal challenges to the California Voting Rights Act of 2002, and now that challenge is coming to San Luis Obispo. During closed session at Tuesday’s city council meeting, San Luis Obispo officials will be talking about a lawsuit threat against the city over its at-large elections.

KPCC reporter Libby Denkmann has more on why cities are changing their election systems:

The idea is that council members elected based on geographic districts, rather than citywide at-large elections will be more likely to reflect the diversity of their constituents.

UC Riverside’s Loren Collingwood and his team looked at 30 cities that changed over to districts and compared them to places with similar demographics, partisan makeup and voting patterns.

Overall, they saw a modest increase in minority representation. But when they looked specifically at places with large Latino populations, those cities saw—on average—a 20 percent boost.

“And that [equates] to one full seat on the city council,” said Collingwood.

Oscar Ortiz was elected to the Indio City Council in 2018, the year his hometown switched to districts. He said his campaign only had to raise a fraction of the tens of thousands of dollars that used to cost to win a council seat.

“We just realized we can just door knock on everybody's door,” Ortiz said.

According to the public affairs firm Grassroots Lab, about a third of California cities could soon switch to district elections.

San Luis Obispo City Attorney Christine Dietrick said in an email to KCBX News this week the city council will provide direction to staff on whether to fight a legal challenge, should it come, or begin discussing making the switch to district elections.