Merced Voters Will Decide on District-Based Elections

Merced voters will soon decide whether to swap their current, at-large voting system for by-district elections as part of a settlement between the city and a Latino civil rights group.

On Monday, the city council voted 4-3 to approve a settlement agreement with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) which threatened a lawsuit over the city’s at-large system, calling it a violation of the California Voting Rights Act. Council Members Mike Murphy, Noah Lor, and Michael Belluomini dissented. 

As part of the agreement, city staff will draft a charter amendment measure for the Nov. 4 ballot, allowing voters to establish a single-member district election system. In addition, an independent advisory committee must be established to develop district maps which divide the city into 6 districts. The city must also pay MALDEF’s legal fees.

“We are very happy that they’ve taken the direction that they have," said MALDEF’s national senior counsel Denise Hulett. “Addressing the problem early saved a great deal of time and resources.”

MALDEF believes Merced’s current system disenfranchises Latino voters by preventing them from having a representative of their choice on the council.

“Currently all the City Council members live in north Merced,” Hulett said. “By-district election means you’ll have people on the City Council representing all sides of the city.”

Council members were less enthusiastic about the deal. Council Member Josh Pedrozo said he ‘held his nose’ while voting for the agreement, largely due to the $43,000 in legal fees that the city must now pay. Council Member Tony Dossetti, meanwhile, said it seemed like the city was “bargaining with the devil.” Mayor Stan Thurston, however, assured everyone that the agreement was in the city’s best interest. Had the city been forced to fight a lawsuit, there is a 99.9% chance they would have lost, he said.

MALDEF officials point out that 140 California cities and school districts, including Modesto and Ceres, have now switched to district-based elections. If Merced voters do not approve the measure, Hulett said the city will be at risk of future litigation from other minority groups.

Read more about Monday’s settlement agreement here.