California School News — August 2017
Change Language:
California Voting Rights Act And At-Large Elections

Numerous school districts have received demand letters recently, claiming they are holding elections in a manner that violates the California Voting Rights Act. (See Elections Code 14025-14032.)

The CVRA, signed into law in 2002, provides that an at-large method of election may not be used in local governing bodies’ elections if it impairs the choice of a protected class of voters. Impairment is classified as infringing on the right of a voter to either elect candidates of their choice, or influence the outcome of an election due to electoral dilution or abridgement. A protected class is defined as members of a race, color, or language minority group, and any member of the group is authorized to bring an action in court to enforce the CVRA.

There are three methods of elections for school boards: at-large, from-trustee area and by-trustee area. Under an at-large elections system, voters of the entire jurisdiction elect all members of the governing board. Under a from-trustee-area election system, board members are elected from each trustee area, but each board member is elected by voters from the entire district. Lastly, under a by-trustee-area method of election, a district is divided into trustee areas and each board member is elected by the voters of their respective trustee areas. Since the enactment of the CVRA, many school districts have switched from the at-large election method to by-trustee-area method. The many governing boards still using at-large (or from-trustee area) elections methods are subject to scrutiny under the CVRA.

Districts that are yet to transition to the by-trustee area method will have to do so under the more extensive process specified in Elections Code Section 10010, as amended by Assembly Bill 350. The bill allowed the public to provide input on the formation of proposed trustee areas. Importantly, Elections Code Section 10010 also requires a prospective plaintiff to send a written notice to a governing board before bringing a CVRA action. Once a governing board receives the demand letter, the prospective plaintiff is barred from beginning the CVRA lawsuit for 45 days, and the governing board may pass a resolution outlining its intent to transition to a by-trustee election method. The prospective plaintiff can recover reasonable costs incurred in sending the demand letter.

Governing boards with at-large or from-trustee-area election systems may want to consider switching to a by-trustee area method, and should make sure to respond within the allotted time if they receive a demand letter or notice under the CVRA. The cost of fighting a CVRA lawsuit can be significant for governing boards, as the law grants a prevailing plaintiff the right to recover reasonable attorneys’ fees and expert witness fees.

Policy Services clients can review CSBA’s Sample Board Bylaw 9220, which provides additional information about the election options for school districts and county offices of education, on Gamut Online