Voters appeared to be on their way to approving the measure to carve Merced into districts for local elections with 52 percent marking “yes” on their ballots.
With 87 percent of precincts reporting at press time, the vote appeared to have cast aside Merced’s at-large voting system, in which local elections are decided by a citywide vote, for a system with districts. Voting “yes” may have also spared the city from a lawsuit.
In April, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said the citywide vote does not meet the standard set by the California Voting Rights Act.
The group sent a letter threatening to sue the city if leaders did not make the move toward districts. Other cities in the state have faced legal battles and have paid out millions of dollars to plaintiffs, who can ask the court to force cities to pay their legal costs.
Though Merced has a Latino population of 49 percent, no member of the City Council is of Latino descent. The 2013 local election drew council hopefuls who fit that demographic, but none won a seat.
All six councilmen also live north of Bear Creek. The city agreed to a settlement with the civil rights group that the districts would use the Santa Fe railroad tracks as a boundary that would split the city in half.
Supporters of Measure T argued that the district system will bring down the cost of running an election, which would allow for a greater number of candidates. The candidates would need to reach an estimated 13,500 people in a district, rather than the city’s more than 80,000 residents.
Also, backers argue, representatives must live in the district, and therefore each district would get equal representation.
More than a dozen people worked Tuesday in a phone bank in Merced trying to get voters out to the polls. The phone bank was put together by civil rights group Communities for a New California Education Fund, and it focused on drumming up support on Measure T and other similar measures in Los Banos and Turlock.
Detractors said voting “no” gives the city a chance to pursue the three-district option, which they said is worth pursuing even if threatened by the civil rights lawsuit. Three districts would keep voters involved during every election rather than every other election, they said, because each district would have two representatives.
Having three districts also reduces the chance that a district would draw no candidate, Measure T opponents said.
According to numbers from the League of California Cities conference last month, those who have fought the move to districts have racked up attorneys’ fees paid to the plaintiffs. Anaheim’s bill was $1.2 million, Modesto’s was $3 million, and Palmdale is appealing its $3.5 million bill.