The Burbank City Council narrowed in on selecting a district map during its Tuesday meeting, which saw much debate over rank choice voting, districts and at-large elections as Burbank considers reformatting its elections of councilmembers.
Though a final map will not be approved until next month, the Council may still choose to maintain the current at-large system or shift to another format, though legal experts say doing so would invite litigation.
At the meeting, councilmembers debated the merits of several community-submitted maps. The Council discussed the importance of not diluting the voting power of the Latino population and other communities of interest, the concentration of low-income and multifamily housing in each district, and the distribution of existing councilmembers in prospective districts.
Communities of interest is defined in state voting law as populations that share common social or economic interests that should be included within a single district for purposes of effective and fair representation.
The districting process could ultimately transform the way City Council elections are held. While the Council is reviewing several options, the prevailing arrangement would break Burbank into five distinct Council districts, where electors vote only for councilmember candidates who live in their district.
That is the method prescribed in the California Voting Rights Act, which “gives effect to voting minorities, with the intent of increasing their influence in elections,” said City Attorney Joe McDougall.
Maps are largely submitted by Burbank residents, guided by the city’s contracted demographer the National Demographics Corporation, headed by Douglas Johnson.
Relentless public engagement has led to increasingly civil discussion on the topic, and Johnson has said that he is pleasantly surprised with the level of public participation.
The transition from the current at-large voting system to an arrangement with five City Council districts was forced upon the panel after the city received a notice in August of a potential violation of the CVRA. The letter — sent on behalf of a Burbank voter, Nick Gutierrez — included a demand that the city change its voting system to a by-district approach.
The Council had little choice but to jumpstart the districting process, as doing so protects the city from litigation for a short time. They voted unanimously in January to issue a resolution of intent to change to by-district elections, triggering a 90-day “safe harbor” period to forestall litigation.
Some criticism of the district format comes from an issue called election sequencing. As part of the transition to districting, election cycles will no longer be assigned to individuals councilmembers. Instead, each district will have a cycle rotation assigned to it, which could pose issues for existing councilmembers when their seats come up for reelection.
Two Council seats are up for election in 2024, with the remaining three set for 2026, but because the election cycle will be paired with districts, a councilmember whose term ends in 2024 may live in a district where an election will not be held until 2026. In this case, the councilmember must sit out for two years and run again in 2026.
One resident, David Donahue, pointed out issues with the election sequencing, stating that districting could put Councilmember Tamala Takahashi and Vice Mayor Nick Schultz in the same district.
Representatives from the Armenian National Committee came out to endorse certain maps, pointing out that, like Donahue, they were not in favor of the districting process, but if it were to go through, ANCA’s main concern is preventing the dilution of Armenians voting strength.
Another speaker, David Holtzman, endorsed rank choice voting as an alternative to other election formats. The method, which sees electors rank their preferred candidates by most to least preferred, is touted as a more equitable election method by the League of Women Voters and other organizations.
“Thank you all for keeping proportional representation through rank choice voting in mind as you go through this process. Proportional rank choice voting is more fair as a remedy to voting rights issues, and it is simply more fair as an election method in general,” Holtzman said.
Rank choice voting may be off the table, however, despite its popularity in the Council chambers, as the county election system is not yet equipped to administer rank choice elections.
“The county is not presently prepared to conduct rank choice voting, but should Burbank request them to conduct rank choice voting … they would begin the process, but that process will be a lengthy process that involves not only modifying their system, but receiving secretary of state of approval,” said City Attorney Joe McDougall, adding receiving such an approval likely would not happen within the timeline of the city’s next two elections.
First published in the July 22 print issue of the Burbank Leader.