Paso voters may get a new way to elect their City Council — by ranking the candidates

Paso Robles residents might soon cast their votes for City Council by ranking candidates in order of preference — a different kind of election the city is exploring in response to allegations that its current system prevents Latinos from gaining political power.

The city is in the midst of changing its elections in response to a legal threat claiming the city’s at-large voting framework violates the California Voting Rights Act by diluting the ballots cast by Latino residents.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman sent a letter in August threatening litigation on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP), a nonprofit dedicated to helping Latinos and minorities become more politically active.

In response, Paso Robles leaders began the process of shifting to a district-based system that would divide the city into four areas of about 7,000 residents. Voters in each district would vote for candidates vying to represent their geographic zones.

But city leaders and residents haven’t been happy about being forced to shift to that model. Some feel the district-based system would divide Paso Robles and wouldn’t do much to help create a more diverse city government.

More than 30 percent of Paso Robles residents identify as Hispanic or Latino. In November, Councilwoman Maria Garcia became the first woman in 34 years — and likely the first-ever Latina — to be elected to government office in the city.

Election alternatives

City Council members on Tuesday began exploring alternatives to district elections.

Michael Latner, a Cal Poly associate professor of political science, gave a presentation on different systems the city could adopt.

He recommended a format called “ranked-choice voting,” in which voters rank a set number of the candidates in a preferred order instead of casting votes that are tallied independent of each other.

This system is also known as “instant-runoff voting,” as it eliminates the need for primary elections.

Voters’ top choices are counted first — in a race for a single seat, to win in the first round, a candidate must earn more than 50 percent of the vote. If a candidate hasn’t won after the first round, the lowest vote-getter is eliminated.

Then, voters whose top choices were eliminated have their second choices tallied and added to leading candidates’ counts. If no one wins after that round, the process continues in a similar way until a winner is declared.

The process can also work for races with multiple winners, but it gets a bit more complicated.

Four Bay Area cities — Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and San Leandro — all currently use ranked-choice voting systems.

Latner said research shows ranked-choice voting systems tend to elect more women and people of color.

“They tend to provide more accurate representation,” he said.

Charter cities

Adopting a new kind of voting system would require Paso Robles, currently a general law city, to become a charter city.

Charter cities have slightly more authority to make their own rules regarding elections and other “municipal affairs,” according to the League of California Cities. General law cities defer to the state’s general law.

San Luis Obispo is the only charter city in the county — 108 of California’s 478 cities are charter cities.

Iris Yang, the city’s attorney, said Paso Robles would need to hold an election and gain voter approval to convert to a charter city.

Council members expressed interest in the concept of ranked-choice voting and becoming a charter city. However, as the city has already begun the process of dividing into districts, city officials must determine whether they can change their system and avoid legal action.

“I hate being forced into the district elections, myself, too,” Councilman Steve Gregory said. “Is there a way to communicate with the attorney to say, ‘This is one of our alternatives now,’ and just jump right in and get it done?”

Mission Viejo in Orange County also received a litigation threat from the SVREP, and officials opted to settle with the organization by adopting cumulative voting instead of dividing into districts.

The council voted 4-1 in favor of directing staff to continue assessing alternative election formats and 5-0 in favor of reviewing charter city status.

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Lindsey Holden writes about housing, North County communities and everything in between for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. She became a staff writer in 2016 after working for the Rockford Register Star in Illinois. Lindsey is a native Californian raised in the Midwest and earned degrees from DePaul and Northwestern universities.