Santa Barbara on Tuesday joined the ranks of California cities to be sued over their method of electing public officials. Five Spanish-surnamed registered voters in the city of more than 88,000 filed suit in Santa Barbara County Superior Court, claiming the city is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. Santa Barabara Mayor Helene Schneider called the lawsuit premature and said the city had already authorized a study of its elections. The plaintiffs allege the city’s at-large elections system “has resulted in vote dilution for Latino residents and has denied them effective political participation in elections to the Santa Barbara City Council.” They want the court to order the city to begin electing its council members by geographic district. They believe by-district elections would give Latino voters, who are largely concentrated in certain areas of the city, a better chance of electing at least one representative of their choice to the council.
According to the lawsuit, 38% of city residents are Latino but only one member of that ethnic group has been elected to the council in the last 10 years. No Latino has been elected mayor since the city switched to at-large elections in 1968.
The plaintiffs, who are represented by former Santa Barbara City Atty. A. Barry Cappello, said in their suit they have found evidence of raciallly polarized voting. Analysis of precinct results can be used to find patterns of such voting, in which the outcomes in minority precincts differ from those in the rest of a jurisdiction.