Voters to Decide if the City of Merced Should Change its Voting System

November 1, 2014 /

by Fernando Almaraz, with additional reporting by Andres Reyes

image: Google maps

Why are there no Latinos represented on Merced’s city council, a body that represents a city of over 49 percent Latino residents? Measure T advocates say it’s the voting system.

Currently, the city’s at-large system means that anyone running for office must campaign the entire city to become the top vote-getter in Merced. Unlike a single-member district system, which only requires candidates to campaign in their district, an at-large system can erect a costly barrier to entering a race for less well-known minority candidates.

The city’s at-large system recently came under fire from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), who alleged that the at-large system was in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). The CVRA dictates that at-large jurisdictions are subject to legal challenge if minority votes are being diluted and allows voters to challenge the electoral system. MALDEF, who cited a decade-long history of no Latino council members, threatened to sue the city if no agreement could be reached on changing the election system.

In response, the city council put Measure T on the ballot to let the voters decide. The measure would give voters a chance to vote for or against replacing the at-large system with a single-member district system.

Changing the single-member district system would mean that Merced would be split into six districts and each district would elect one representative to sit on the city council. Each district would have about an equal proportion of voters and candidates would only have to campaign in their district, which could mean candidates would pursue a pool of 13,500 residents instead of 81,000, according to proponents.

The measure would also require that the city establish an independent advisory committee to map out the districts and requires the city to pay MALDEF attorney fees of $43,000, according to an article by the Merced Sun-Star.

On October 23, the League of Women Voters hosted an educational forum for Measure T. It was facilitated by interim City Attorney and featured Matthew Barragan, a lawyer from MALDEF and Jessica Trounstine, a Political Science professor at UC Merced, as guests.

For over an hour the panel explained Measure T and its consequences, including the pros and cons of the proposed change. Trounstine explained that by-district elections historically have lower campaign costs, and result in an increase of diversity on elected bodies and an increase in voter engagement. They also said at-large jurisdictions usually focus on citywide policy making while by-district jurisdictions usually are more neighborhood oriented.

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