Orange becomes latest city sued to enforce district elections

Orange is the latest city to face a general election lawsuit. Cities that have implemented by-district voting include Costa Mesa, Dana Point, Fullerton, Lake Forest, Placentia and Stanton. Graphic by Emma Reith

In January, Orange’s city council voted to hold a special election that could cost almost half of a million to elect a councilperson to an empty seat.

Now, the city is being sued amidst claims that its current at-large election method disenfranchises Latino voters and has “denied them effective political participation,” according to the lawsuit. Orange’s population is 39 percent Latino, according to the U.S. Census, and its city council is historically mostly white.

If the lawsuit is successful, it would enforce district elections in Orange. When a council person is elected in the upcoming special election, they will hold the seat for just one year.

Betty Valencia, who is Latina, was a candidate for one of two open city council seats in the November 2018 election, and came in at third place.  Some thought she would be appointed to the newly opened council seat, which belonged to Mark Murphy for two years, but opened when he was elected mayor.

“Because I came in third doesn’t mean we’re certainly going to be a shoe-in,” Valencia told The Panther. “But our argument was, look, we ran a campaign, we walked, we canvassed, we showed up to every candidate forum … If you’re going to be appointing, at least consider us, because the alternative is if you appoint someone you know because they align with you that would be very unfair.” 

If the lawsuit were to go through, it would divide the city into districts, allowing council members to be elected by voters in each district, rather than by the entire city.

Similar cases that have gone to trial include the cities of Palmdale, Highland, Santa Clara, and Santa Monica. The lawsuit was filed by Kevin Shenkman Feb. 13 on behalf of Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), a non-profit organization that promotes Latino and minority political representation and involvement. 

“We took a look at Orange and we’re convinced that Orange is violating the Voting Rights Act, and the goal of the lawsuit is to change the way it is electing city council,” Shenkman told The Panther.

With diversity at the forefront of the lawsuit, Valencia is confident that all levels of government would benefit from equal representation.

“We need diversity on all levels,” Valencia said. “It has been something that has been missing. (The special election is) a lot of money for a one-year seat, considering we could have spent zero.”

Valencia’s campaign in 2018 addressed issues like homelessness, the senior population and infrastructure, according to Valencia. She said it was difficult to compete against other candidates. 

“(District elections) will make elections more accessible for individuals to actually run for office,” she said.

Fred Smoller, a Chapman political science professor who specializes in local politics, told The Panther that the reasoning behind the lawsuit comes from the fact that minority communities in Orange find it difficult to be elected or appointed to the city council.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was that the city would not elect Betty to the third seat,” Smoller said. “She’s openly gay, she’s liberal; why do you think she didn’t get appointed?” 

Transitioning to district elections might be the largest change to Orange city government in history, Smoller said.

“There are a lot of people who are not pleased that the city will go to district elections,” Smoller said. “This baby has to be born. There’s no turning back.”

Mitchell Rosenberg, Betty Valencia’s policy director and Chapman student government president, said that the possibility of representation is important. “Our council is not representative of the Orange population,” Rosenberg said.

Valencia “was focused on inclusion,” said Grace Papish, a junior political science major who volunteered for Valenica’s campaign. 

“She wanted the issues that mattered to the people we canvassed to be reflected in the city Council,” Papish said.

Shenkman described Valencia’s politics as being at odds with the city council’s politics, referring to a Dec. 11 council meeting where a man pulled a knife after criticizing Valencia’s campaign and calling her the “worst person” to have on the council.

“That level of hostility has a caustic effect,” Shenkman said.

The council has not made a decision yet on how they will proceed with the lawsuit, said Councilman Mike Alvarez, who also serves as mayor pro tempore.

“I don’t think districts in Orange will have any kind of effect. The districts were formed in order to help those who have a minority in the district,” Alvarez said. “When you apply that to the city of Orange, there is really no neighborhood that is dominated by any minority.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story used inaccurate language when describing the by-district election process. This information has been corrected.