Riders board an AC Transit rapid bus in East Oakland.
Riders board an AC Transit bus at 98th Avenue in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

The AC Transit Board of Directors voted Wednesday to end the use of at-large elections to avoid a potential California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.

The board received a legal letter in March alleging that its method of electing two at-large candidates to its seven-member board violates the Voting Rights Act. The decision to change its election system was approved unanimously. One board director abstained.

Since the passage of the California Voting Rights Act in 2001, at least 80 California cities have switched to district elections. Some cities have lost multi-million dollar lawsuits claiming their at-large election systems dilute minority votes. Other cities and governing boards have made the change voluntarily or under pressure, like the AC Transit Board.

In its resolution, the AC Transit Board said it was changing its election system to avoid the legal fees associated with fighting a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit, not because it would increase minority representation on the board.

“The District’s voters have a long history of electing directors who are members of protected classes to the District’s board,” the resolution reads. The board denied that the election system violated the voting rights act and any wrongdoing in conducting elections.

California’s voting rights act builds on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, attempting to ensure representation for minority voters by making it easier to prove that votes are being diluted.

Research shows district elections increase representation when minority racial groups are concentrated in particular neighborhoods. “It is possible to draw districts that grant racial minorities voting majorities within districts, consequently making it possible for minority groups to win city council seats,” according to MIT Election Lab researcher Zach Hertz.

But a shift to district elections won’t guarantee more fair elections. An LAist analysis found that in 2018, less than half of newly districted cities saw increased representation for minorities in city council seats.

The board, which oversees the AC Transit bus system spanning Alameda and Contra Costa counties, will redraw its ward boundaries. The new ward map will include seven wards instead of five. The public will be able to give input on the composition of the wards and then weigh in on a draft map of new ward boundaries.