The Pleasanton City Council is set to consider a resolution Tuesday declaring its intent to transition from at-large elections to a district-based system after being accused last year of violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

According to a staff report for Tuesday’s meeting, the city received a letter Aug. 5 from a law firm representing the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, alleging “racially polarized voting” in Pleasanton and threatening litigation if the city won’t convert to district-based elections.

The report says, “Racially polarized voting means voting in which there is a difference in the choice of candidates or other electoral choices that are preferred by voters of a protected class, than in the choice of candidates and electoral choices that are preferred by voters in the rest of the electorate.”

The staff report also says the letter specifically referred to the city’s at-large system as diluting the ability of Latino and Asian voters — both protected groups — to elect candidates of their choice or otherwise influence the outcome of Pleasanton’s city council elections, which would be a violation of the CVRA.

A number of California cities have faced similar challenges since the CVRA became law in 2002. According to the staff report, “Almost all cities that have received a legal challenge have settled claims out of court by agreeing to voluntarily shift to district-based elections.”

Buying time

A 2016 California law attempted to insulate cities from such lawsuits by allowing cities facing legal challenges 45 days of protection from litigation to assess its situation. If the city declares its intent to shift to district-based elections within 45 days and outlines steps to do so, it gets another 90 days of protection from litigation.

The report says a lawyer for the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project has agreed to extend the safe harbor period by another 90 days, so the city can hold the required four public hearings.

The first two hearings would give the community the chance to weigh in on the composition of districts before any maps are drawn. The second two would give the public a chance to offer input regarding the content of the map and proposed sequence of elections. A final hearing would be held for the council to consider enacting the ordinance.

Should the council declare its intent to switch to district elections, the city would have until March 19, 2022, to officially adopt the change. District-based elections would then be used for the city’s general municipal election in November 2022.

The Pleasanton City Council meets virtually at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and can be accessed at the city of Pleasanton’s YouTube channel or on Zoom.