Judge Rules Santa Clara Violated Voting Rights Laws and “Failed to Act”

By Carolyn Schuk

The City of Santa Clara is in violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), ruled Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Thomas Kuhnle. The ruling was published Wednesday afternoon, following a four-day trial that concluded on April 26.

“Based on the evidence presented at trial,” Judge Kuhnle wrote, “the Court finds that Plaintiffs have proven by a preponderance of the evidence that the at-large method of election used by the City impairs the ability of Asians to elect candidates as a result of the dilution and abridgment of their rights as voters.”

Kuhnle found that the preponderance of evidence included statistical analysis, election outcomes, and the presence of discriminatory election “devices.”

In his decision Kuhnle pointed to the obvious. “It is undisputed that no Asians have been elected to the City Council. Since 2002 there have been ten elections in which Asians have run. Every time they lost.”


The judge also found that the at-large by-seat system operated as a discriminatory system.

“At-large voting systems are disfavored under both federal and California voting rights laws because it is well-understood that such election systems dilute the votes of racial minority groups.”

Numbered seats, Judge Khunle wrote, has long been recognized for its “potential for discriminatory impact,” and ruled that Santa Clara’s numbered City Council seats “are electoral devices …that may enhance the dilutive effects of at-large elections.”

Several times in his decision Kuhnle pointed to Santa Clara’s repeated failures to take action despite clear indications that its election system was likely discriminatory. “The City’s failure to address the source of voting dilution,” he wrote, “is a factor that should be considered.”

For years the City of Santa Clara dismissed the threat of a CVRA lawsuit that had been threatened since 2011. The suit was finally brought in 2017, after the recommendation of a 2011 Charter Review Committee had been ignored and a second Committee, that was convened in 2016, tabled its assignment in favor of other objectives.

A third Committee was convened in 2017 after the suit was filed and proposed a two-district division of the City with three at-large seats in each district, and a new proportional representation voting system, Ranked Choice Single Transferrable Vote, that can’t be supported currently by the Registrar of Voters.

“The City was put on notice in 2011 that its at-large numbered posts were diluting Asian voting rights,” the Judge wrote.

“Instead of candidly addressing the issue,” he continued, “the City’s interim General Counsel [Elizabeth Silver] asked that a demographer’s report be ‘stripped’ of ‘the information about the council election history and the charts…showing racial polarization’ before it was distributed to members of the City Council and the Charter Review Committee.

“The City did make not make any changes to its ‘electoral devices or other voting practices or procedures’ despite having two Charter Review Committees examine the issue,” he continued. “In 2011 an overwhelming majority of the City Charter Committee voted in favor of abandoning numbered seats. The City Council never has adopted that recommendation.”

The only argument that didn’t play into the ruling was that of underlying racism—evidenced in a series of ugly and racist emails received by the City about the proposed Korea Town designation for part of El Camino several years ago. “While the Korea Town events were troubling,” Kuhnle wrote, the analysis “did not say whether Asians from other national origins felt the same hostility.”

The next step is the remedies phase. This will take place after the June 5 election. There is no requirement for the court to accept the proposed 2×3 system as a remedy, regardless of how it fares at the ballot box. Single-member districts are the only remedy to CVRA violations that has been accepted to date.

The City will likely be liable for the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.