Sunnyvale Rising: Building Power at the Ballot Box

July 5, 2022 Perspective

This year, Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus turns 50. We’re taking a look back at inspiring cases and campaigns from our history, including those that continue to shape our legal services, advocacy, and community outreach today.

Over the past several years, residents in Sunnyvale, California, led a multiracial campaign for fair elections and equal rights to vote for candidates who will fight for their needs and aspirations.

It started in 2018 when a community member, represented by our team, the Asian Law Alliance, and Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho, sent a letter to the City of Sunnyvale raising concerns that the city’s at-large elections blocked Asian American voters from electing candidates of their choice. A year later, three long-time Sunnyvale residents - Galen Kim Davis, Kathy Higuchi, and Bowman Ching - joined the case. They affirmed that whether residents were South Asian, Korean, Japanese, or Chinese, they all had the right to fair elections under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), which encourages governments to transition from at-large to by-district elections when at-large elections result in the disenfranchisement of minority voters. In at-large city elections, all candidates run citywide, which means the majority has the power to choose all the city councilmembers. In by-district elections, city councilmembers represent individual districts, which can give minority communities better opportunities to elect a representative.

California passed the CVRA to create fairer voting practices and address the decades of disenfranchisement and systemic racism that blocks Asian American, Black, Latinx, and immigrant Californians from electing officials that represent their values and communities. Since 2011, we’ve helped Asian American and Latinx residents in San Mateo (Satorre v. San Mateo), Redwood City, Vallejo, Union City, and Fremont push for district-based systems that protect minority populations’ right to vote.

Illustration of scales of justice in blue and plum

Fact Sheet

The California Voting Rights Act was passed in 2002 to address discriminatory voting practices. Learn more.

In Sunnyvale, our clients argued that the city’s continued use of at-large elections violated the CVRA and were diluting Asian and Latinx residents’ votes.

  • At the time, Asian Americans were approximately 45% of Sunnyvale’s population, or more than 68,000 people, and 33% of the city’s eligible voters. Yet, six of the seven city council members were white and only three Asian Americans had ever been elected to the council.
  • Meanwhile, while Latinos made up 18% of Sunnyvale's total population and about 14% of eligible voters, the council had not had a Latinx member in over 30 years.
  • All seven city council members lived in the southern half of the city, while the northern half, where no city council member lived, was home to most of Sunnyvale’s middle- and low-income communities, the core of the Latinx community, and several mobile home parks.

Sunnyvale residents continued their calls for fairer elections, and the city ultimately agreed to put a charter amendment on the ballot to transition to district elections and hold a public process to draw a district map. In March 2020, voters resoundingly approved the measure, bringing Sunnyvale by-district elections for six city council members who represent districts and a directly-elected mayor. In 2021, Sunnyvale voters in three districts elected their council members through by-district elections, including a Latina council member and a Pakistani American council member. This year, voters in the other three districts will elect their council members.

When cities use district elections, with fair district maps, it can help lead to more diverse and representative government. Researchers at the University of New Mexico and University of California at Riverside recently analyzed data from cities between 2001, when the CVRA passed, and 2018. As they shared in the Washington Post, “city councils that switched from at-large to single-member district elections were on average 10 to 12 percent more diverse after the shift.” Since their study concluded, another 80 California cities like Sunnyvale made a similar shift.

Core to ALC’s CVRA work is community education and engaging the public in drawing district maps. In Sunnyvale and other cities transitioning to districts, we worked with community leaders to hold trainings and workshops, to make sure community voices shape the maps and the new maps empower voters who have been excluded from power. Sunnyvale residents understand the importance of fair district lines and transparent, equitable redistricting processes. In the most recent state redistricting process, for example, residents joined together to advocate for a near-majority Asian American Congressional district made up of Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Cupertino, Berryessa, Milpitas, and south Fremont.

Learn more about the California Voting Rights Act and the Asian Law Caucus’ Voting Rights program.