Voting rights attorney says lawsuit challenging Elk Grove's from-district representation likely to be filed this year

Although the issue of by-district voting and representation in Elk Grove has not been visible for the last several months, that status could change sometime this year according to an attorney who specializes in violations of the California Voters Right Act of 2001.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman said his team is preparing to challenge the city of Elk Grove's from-district form of city council elections and representation to become the more equitable by-district form of governance this year. Shenkman said his team is doing demographic analysis, and once that is complete, they will pursue litigation.

A little over a year ago Shenkman informed the city that he might pursue relief based on the CVRA. In the last year, Shenkman has pursued similar actions against the California cities of Camarillo and Orange and successfully litigated a case against Santa Monica.

"In each instance within a couple of months of us filing the cases, each of them started drawing districts," Shenkman said. "That is what we are seeing now, and most cities are looking around and say 'hey if Santa Monica can't beat this, how can we.'"

While Shenkman's suit against Santa Monica was successful, the city is appealing the decision.

In the current from-district system, four council members reside in one geographic area but are elected by the entire city, while by-district elections representatives are elected only by voters in the particular district. One of the criticisms leveled against from-district is they are more expensive to finance for a campaign and give incumbents a financial advantage over challengers, who generally have fewer campaign contribution sources. 

Shenkman and his team have successfully challenged many municipalities statewide to switch from the from-district or at-large systems based on their violation of the California Voter Rights Act. While many cities have voluntarily changed after being notified they could be sued, some have resisted.

For its part, four of the five Elk Grove city council members have expressed varying degrees of support to maintain the current form with Council Member Pat Hume calling the current configuration "elegant." Mayor Steve Ly has sided with several community members advocating for the abolition of the from-district system characterizing it at as undemocratic and a hindrance to minority and females candidates. 

One notable fight was between Shenkman's team and the city of Palmdale, Calif. In that court battle, Palmdale finally agreed to switch to by-district but not before spending $13.8 million in taxpayers money in litigation to maintain their at-large system.

Elk Grove resident Amar Shergill, who supports by-district elections, has appeared several times in the last year urging the city council to voluntarily change to by-district elections. Shergill, who referenced the Santa Monica case during his November 14, 2018 comments (see video below for entire presentation) noted if the city resists Shenkman's efforts, taxpayers could be on the hook for millions of dollars.   

"The facts in Santa Monic are astoundingly similar to Elk Grove," Shergill told the council. "Both cities have people of color on the council, yet both cities also discriminate against people of color because the at-large system makes it more difficult for those people to be elected."

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