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Monday, July 29, 2019

Districts - Update 7/29/2019

Sunnyvale, California and District Elections

Downtown Sunnyvale
We look at what will happen if the proposed ballot measure to go to 6 districts with a directly elected mayor is not passed by the voters in March, 2020.  This is my understanding from asking questions and listening to various authorities on the subject.  The Sunnyvale City Council will be getting more information from the City Attorney's Office in the future.  I will correct this post if I find there are errors.

Link to this post for sharing is:


On October 2, 2018, the Asian Law Caucus (ALC) sent a letter to the City of Sunnyvale, California claiming that Sunnyvale is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).  Details here:

In response, on June 18, 2019, the Sunnyvale City Council (SCC) voted 5-2 to put on the March 3, 2020 ballot a measure to change Sunnyvale's city government to 6 districts and a directly elected mayor.  Council Members Nancy Smith and I, Michael Goldman, were the two dissenting.  The June 18, 2019 Sunnyvale City Council meeting details and video are here:

Sunnyvale's 7 current council members were elected "at large".  "At Large" means the entire voting population of Sunnyvale voted for every council seat.  The proposed ballot measure would change this to a directly mayor elected "at large" with 6 council members each elected singly from 6 districts.  This is referred to below as "6+1".   Details on that here:

In dissenting, Council Member Nancy Smith stated that she favored a directly elected mayor herself but since the public comments were overwhelmingly against it she opposed it being part of the ballot measure.

I stated that I felt the ballot measure to add a directly elected mayor aspect complicated things and significantly increased the possibility of the ballot measure being defeated.  I further said that the directly elected mayor aspect could be considered for a November ballot along with other systems.

2011 Vote on Directly Elected Mayor:

The 2011 ballot measure for a directly elected mayor lost 63% to 37%.  About 17,000 people voted.  That was an odd year election which tends to draw voters more politically concerned about Sunnyvale politics.  The 2011 ballot measure is described here:,_Measure_A_(November_2011)

The March 3, 2020 primary will also draw out the more politically interested voters.  "Guesstimates" I've heard as to how it might go in March are similar to the following:

Perhaps 80% vote "No" on March ballot measure:
  • 10% vote "no" because they don't want to go to districts, and...
  • 35% vote "no" because they don't want a directly elected mayor, and...
  • 25% vote "no" because they want 7 districts (for more minority representation), and...
  • 10% vote "no" because they don't know what it is about and the default vote is "no".
That sums to 80% voting "NO".  Play with the numbers but it is hard to see how the measure wins.


If the ballot measure loses, the ALC will probably sue Sunnyvale right away.  The SCC can either fight the suit (expensive - $$$$) or "stipulate" - i.e., give up (not very expensive - $).

Case 1.  The SCC fights the suit ($$$$):

Fighting the suit could be very expensive.

There is no situation where a city has won a fight against a CVRA lawsuit.  Nonetheless, occasionally cities choose to fight.

If the current SCC chooses to fight, a judge will likely order Sunnyvale to go to district elections for November, 2020 while Sunnyvale's attorneys fight the suit in court.  This would be similar to the current situation in Santa Clara.

Since four council seats are up for election in 2020 and they will almost certainly be elected by district, it is possible that even if a legal battle is initiated, a new majority could stop it in short order at not too much cost ($$).

The decision to fight the suit will highly likely be an election issue in 2020 city council elections.

Case 2.  The SCC "Stipulates".  I.e. "gives up".  ($)

Stipulating will be relatively cheap but not free.  Based on precedent it would likely cost around $125,000.

Question for the city attorney: Which cities have stipulated and how much did each pay to the plaintiffs?

If the SCC "stipulates", it would need to go into negotiations with the ALC to determine how much money to pay the ALC to settle.  The ALC seems more interested in getting to district elections than making a lot of money, but they have put a fair bit of time into this and they will want to be compensated for it.

Negotiations can take a month if everything runs smoothly.  A very slightly accelerated effort could do it in less time.  The longer the Sunnyvale City Council haggles over the settlement amount the longer the delay in going to districts.  With luck we would have everything settled by April or May so people know what district they are in and candidates know which districts will have elections.

Question for the city attorney: what is the shortest time frame we could reasonably expect to reach a settlement?

Once the settlement is agreed to the judge will probably accept a 7-district map from the city.  The judge will probably NOT accept a 6 district council with a 7th council member elected at large.  This is because that 7th member "at large" does NOT satisfy the CVRA.

Sample District Map Drawn by FairVote
Sample 7-district map.  More details here:
For the city to provide a 7-district map to the judge, it needs to go through the entire process of public outreach and map-making that it did for the 6+1 maps.  This could take 2-3 months.

Question for the attorney:  what would be the fastest the city could go produce a 7-district map?

If the judge does accept a 6+1 map - despite it being voted down in the March 3, 2020 primary - there will need to be substantial changes made to the city charter to delineate how many years a mayor can serve, powers, term limits, salary, etc., etc.  These changes to the city charter can only be made by a vote of the people.  Should those changes be voted down in the November, 2020 election I do not know what will happen.

Question for the attorney:  what happens if the judge accepts the 6 districts plus mayor but the necessary changes are not approved in November by the voters?

In my opinion, any ongoing lawsuit is 99% certain to be an election issue in the council elections of November, 2020.

For now this is ...