Article - Office of College Advancement

Ohlone changing election system

By Matthew Artz, Oakland Tribune.

Saturday, October 15, 2011—Reprinted from Inside Bay Area.

Ohlone College once again is planning to change the way it elects trustees, this time out of fear that its current system violates federal law.

A recent district-commissioned study documented what has long been known about Ohlone's unusual system for electing trustees -- it guarantees that Newark is far overrepresented on the board at the expense of Fremont and Union City.

Trustees last week made it clear that they are intent on ending the long-standing system by which two members of the seven-member board must hail from Newark, even though the city constitutes only about 16 percent of district residents.

Later this year, trustees will consider whether to divide the district into seven wards -- each represented by a trustee who would have to reside in the ward -- or whether to continue with a modified version of the current system, only with portions of Fremont and Union City added to the Newark section, which still would be guaranteed two trustees.

Ohlone is one of dozens of districts considering changing its election system after the release of 2010 census figures. Like many districts in the state, Ohlone feared it was vulnerable to a challenge under the California Voting Rights Act, which was written to provide protection for minority groups.

The state law, which went into effect in 2002, targets governmental entities such as Ohlone that elect trustees by a districtwide vote rather than having trustees run in separate electoral wards.

Under the law, a minority group can sue to force government entities to form wards drawn to help minorities win election if the minority group can show that the dominant ethnic group is consistently voting against it and hurting its chances to win representation.

To help districts avoid litigation, Gov. Jerry Brown this year signed legislation that lets community college boards switch to ward elections without seeking voter approval.

As the East Bay's only community college district whose trustees are elected by a districtwide vote, Ohlone contracted with the consulting firm Redistricting Partners to determine if it was vulnerable to being sued.

The firm found no evidence that Ohlone's election system hindered minority candidates from winning seats. African-Americans and Latinos weren't numerous enough to be statistically significant, and Asians generally voted similar to whites, the study found. But it discovered the district was violating a federal law.

Ohlone last year changed its voting system, under pressure from the League of Women Voters, ending its practice of having challengers choose the incumbent they wished to run against.

Ohlone's current election system requires that two trustees hail from Newark and that the other five trustees reside in the remainder of the district, which includes Fremont and a small portion of Union City. However all candidates still must run across the entire district.

The system, which was designed to make sure Newark got fair representation, guarantees the city one trustee for every 9,000 registered voters. Meanwhile the rest of the district gets one trustee for every 20,000 registered voters -- a clear violation of federal election law, said Paul Mitchell, of Redistricting Partners.

The board is scheduled to vote on a new system in December after holding a public hearing. One option would divide the district along Interstate 880 with everything to the west, including all of Newark being guaranteed two trustees and everything to the east being guaranteed five trustees. Another option establishes seven separate electoral districts with all of Newark being in a single district.

Although trustees said they wanted to hear from the public, most of them during Wednesday's board meeting seemed opposed to creating seven electoral districts. Ohlone trustee Garrett Yee said the system would likely confuse voters, and trustee Nick Nardolillo feared that "you're not going to guarantee that you'll get a candidate in all of these areas."

Board President Rich Watters expressed openness to the switch, saying that the lower cost of running for office in a smaller district could persuade more people to run.

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