District Elections FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions

Staff have reviewed the Petaluma City Charter and it is clear from the Charter that it requires seven council seats. It is Council’s direction to draw a map with six districts and a mayor to be chosen at large, which would not require an amendment to our Charter.

Yes, as explained in detail below, because the Petaluma Charter defaults to “plurality” voting pursuant to Elections Code Section 15452, to change Council member elections to ranked choice voting would require a charter amendment.

RCV allows the electors to select in addition to their first choice, a second and third choice as backups. All first choices on the ballots are counted and if a candidate receives 50% + 1 votes than that candidate will be elected. If not, the candidate with the fewest first choices is defeated. The ballots for that candidate go to those voters’ second choices. Next, the votes will be counted again to determine if a candidate received 50% +1 votes. If a candidate has still not received a majority of the votes, this process of the defeated candidates’ votes going to the remaining candidates will repeat until there is a candidate with a majority of the votes. Below is an illustration of this process.

ranked choice voting graphic

First, it is doubtful that just switching from an “at-large method of election” to a “ranked choice vote election” system would satisfy the California Voters Rights Act and would leave the City vulnerable to litigation. “District-based Elections” is defined in Elections Code Section 14026(b) as “a method of electing members to the governing body of a political subdivision in which the candidate must reside within an election district that is a divisible part of the political subdivision and is elected only by voters residing within that election district”. To remain in the statutory safe harbor provision and limit the City’s exposure to only $30,000 in attorney’s fees, Elections Code Section 10010(a) requires a political subdivision to “change from an at-large method of election to a district-based election.” Therefore, to limit the City’s exposure the City still needs to transition from an at-large election system to a district-based election system. However, the CVRA would likely be satisfied with a transition to district-based elections where each district has ranked choice voting.

Article III, Section 4 of the Petaluma City Charter states, “Except as herein otherwise specifically provided, all regular and special municipal elections of this city are to be held in accordance with the provisions of the Elections Code of the State of California, including all amendments thereto.”  Elections Code section 15452 provides:

“The person who receives a plurality of the votes cast for any office is elected or nominated to that office in any election, except:

  • An election for which different provision is made by any city or county charter.”

Accordingly, under the Petaluma City Charter, City Council members are elected by “plurality” voting as opposed to “majority” voting like runoff or RCV. In plurality voting, the candidate who receives the most votes, even if it is not a majority of the votes cast, is elected. As an example, if Candidate A receives 45% of the total votes cast, Candidate B receives 35%, and Candidate C receives 25% of the votes, in this scenario Candidate A has a plurality of the votes and would be elected under a plurality voting system.

Again, As the Petaluma Charter defaults to “plurality” voting pursuant to Elections Code Section 15452, to change Council member elections to ranked choice voting would require a charter amendment.

Yes, but only residency requirements for 30 days. Legal residence is defined as physical presence combined with an intent to remain.[1] Durational residency requirements imposed as a precondition to candidacy for public policy have been found to implicate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, specifically the fundamental rights to vote and to travel. Five-year, three-year, two-year, and even one-year durational residency requirements have been struck down as a denial of equal protection of the laws, even for charter cities.[2] The California Supreme Court has stated that an entity may constitutionally require that the prospective candidate be a resident at the time that they file their nominating papers and for a period of not more than 30 days preceding their filing date.[3] It is not believed that anything in the Petaluma City Charter currently restricts Council from including in the district elections ordinance a durational requirement that prospective candidates must reside in their district as a precondition to run for City Council in their district; however anything beyond 30-days preceding when the candidate filed their election papers would likely be found unconstitutional.

It should be noted that an elected City Council member who moves their residence outside their district from which they were elected, immediately vacates their office.[4] As part of the ordinance that determines the district boundaries, City Council will also determine the sequential timing of when each district will be elected. For instance, in the first election the even numbered districts will be up for election and in the following election the odd numbered districts.

[1] Government Code Section 244

[2] See Smith v Evans (1974) 42 Cal. App. 3d 154, where the city of Chico’s one year residency requirement for City Council members charter provision was struck down as unconstitutional and a violation of equal protection.

[3] Thompson v. Mellon (1973) 9 Cal. 3d 96

[4] Government Code Section 34882

Everyone! We want everyone in our Petaluma community to help us determine the best way to map out these district-based election boundaries. This means we need you to tell us what make sense when drawing a district. Does your neighborhood have shared concerns? Is there a park, school, major road, or intersection that would define your district? You know your community best!

A Community of Interest is a connected population that shares common social and economic interests that should be included within a single City Council district for purposes of its effective and fair representation as a potential voting bloc in current or future elections. Such groups include (but are not limited to) groups with cultural or historical bonds, shared economic interests, shared racial, ethnic or religious identities, neighborhoods, school districts, media markets, transportation districts, opportunity zones, business improvement districts, communities concerned about environmental hazards, or a shared vision of the future of a community.

How to Submit a Community of Interest (COI)s?

  1. Fill out the Community of Interest Form online
  2. Complete a printable community of interest form (HAGA CLIC AQUÍ para español) and return it by email to [email protected] or drop off/mail a hard copy to the Office of the City Clerk at 11 English Street, Petaluma, CA 94952.

The City of Petaluma will be working with the community to draft maps that meet the requirements of the law regarding districting while also reflecting our community in ways that support communities of interest.  This process requires input from you to better understand our community and where districts would make sense.  There will be three public hearings next year between January and April to review options, draft maps and to vote on a final district map by April of 2022.

Petaluma currently uses an at-large election system, which means all voters in the city cast a ballot for all six councilmembers and our Mayor.   In our new district election model, voters from a specified area will vote directly for one of six Councilmembers to represent them. For example, if you live near a park or a school, you and your neighbors could vote directly for a Councilmember who lives in your district and represents everyone in your neighborhood. The entire city will be mapped into six distinct districts of nearly equal population that equitably represent all people who live in Petaluma, whether they are eligible to vote or not. The Mayor will continue to be selected with the at-large election system.

Mapping tools will be made available for members of the public to draw their own district maps and submit them for consideration.

Download a City Boundary Map to start thinking about how you would draw districts in Petaluma.

Initial draft maps will be posted seven days in advance of Public Hearing #3, and changes to any draft maps will be posted seven days in advance of subsequent hearings.

The City is required to follow a prescribed schedule when considering a transition to district elections under threat of a lawsuit. The following schedule is subject to change and will be updated as needed.




Received Demand Letter 8/23/2021
Adopt a Resolution of Intention, effective 10/7/2021, to transition from at-large to district-based elections 10/04/2021
Launch Districting Website Page 10/26/2021
Public Hearing #1 to gather input from communities of interest (no draft maps are drawn until these are complete) 11/01/2021
Public Hearing #2 to gather input from communities of interest (no draft maps are drawn until these are complete) 11/15/2021
Launch mapping tools on website for public to submit proposed maps 12/10/2021
All Initial draft maps posted on website at least 7 days prior to public hearing 01/24/2021
Public Hearing #3 to gather public input on draft maps and election sequencing 01/31/2021
Changes to initial draft maps posted on website at least 7 days prior to public hearing 02/07/2021
Public Hearing #4 to gather public input on draft maps and election sequencing 02/14/2021
Final map posted on website at least 7 days prior to public hearing 02/28/2022
Public Hearing #5 to introduce Ordinance establishing district-based elections 03/07/2022
Adopt Ordinance establishing district-based elections 03/21/2022
205 days prior to next regular election the Ordinance must be adopted (Elections Code §21602(a)(3)) 04/17/2022
First district-based election to be held 11/08/2022


Community input is needed! Petaluma is seeking community input to determine how to best map district-based election boundaries. Now is your chance to have your voice heard.

  • What would districts mean to you?
  • What would you consider to be your district within Petaluma?
  • What “communities of interest” or “neighborhoods” do you feel should remain intact?
    • Is there a park, school, major road or intersection nearby or within what you consider to be your district?
    • Does your neighborhood have shared concerns or is it within a particular development?
  • Should districts be drawn that have a broad range of different land uses?
  • Are there any locations of growth that Council should consider that you feel are important in how the boundaries are drawn?
  • Are there any natural or man-made geographical boundaries that are important for consideration?

The City Council will be holding hearings to receive public input on where district lines should be drawn. Ways to participate in the public hearings and to provide public comments are listed on the top of each meeting agenda, posted at: cityofpetaluma.org/meetings. The schedule for those hearings is listed below.

We will continue to provide timely updates on this web page throughout the district elections transition process. You can sign up to receive updates on our District Elections Updates email list.

To sign up to remain informed, to ask a question, to provide a comment, or to share your thoughts on the questions above, please fill out the form located on the bottom of this webpage.

The City will reach out to local media to publicize the redistricting process. Also, we will make a good faith effort to notify community groups of various kinds about the redistricting process. All districting materials will be provided in English and Spanish, and live Spanish translation will be available for all public hearings. The City will notify the public about districting hearings, post maps online before adoption, and host this dedicated web page for all relevant information about the districting process.

The legally required criteria that apply to the creation of voting districts are as follows:

  • Each council district shall contain nearly equal population, with any deviations justified by other traditional redistricting criteria.
  • A districting plan shall be drawn in a manner that complies with the state and federal Constitutions, the Federal Voting Rights Act and state other applicable law, including the CVRA.
  • Each council district shall not be drawn with race as the predominant factor in violation of the principles established by the United States Supreme Court in Shaw v. Reno, 509 U.S. 630 (1993).
  • Each council district shall be contiguous, meaning that there can be no islands or parts of the district that are not attached to the whole.

Districting determines which neighborhoods and communities are grouped together into a district for purposes of electing a City Council member. The City Council is seeking input on the district voting map for Petaluma. You have an opportunity to share with the City Council how you think district boundaries should be drawn to best represent your community.

The California Voting Rights Act requires cities to elect their council members from districts if certain conditions are met. As a result, we are changing our election process. Currently we elect our 6 council members and mayor by voters citywide. In the future we will elect our council members by voters from six distinct districts. We will continue to elect our mayor by voters citywide. To meet legal rules, we will need to approve the new district maps by April of 2022. Working backward, we will need to review draft maps by January 31, 2022. This is a significant change in how Petalumans vote for council representation.


On August 23, 2021, the City received a certified letter from Kevin Shenkman, an attorney based in Malibu, which alleged violations of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) (Elections Code §§14025-14032). The letter alleged that the City’s at-large election system has impaired the ability of Latinx voters to elect their preferred candidates and demanded that the City convert to district-based elections for choosing City Council members. The letter requested that the City inform Mr. Shenkman by October 8, 2021 whether the City would discuss a voluntary change to its current at-large election system.

The City of Petaluma currently uses an at-large election system in which all voters in the City have the opportunity to vote for candidates for all seven seats on the City Council. A “district-based” election is one in which the city is divided into separate districts, each with one Councilmember who resides in the district and is chosen by the voters that reside in that district. The CVRA generally requires jurisdictions with “at-large” elections to convert to “district-based” elections if racially-polarized voting is found to exist in the jurisdiction. Racially-polarized voting exists where a protected minority group prefers an issue or candidate that differs from the preference of the majority. At the October 4, 2021, City Council Regular Meeting, the City Council adopted Resolution No. 2021-164 N.C.S. declaring its intent to initiate procedures to consider transition from at-large to district-based elections. On October 8, 2021, the City informed Mr. Shenkman of the adoption of Resolution 2021-164 N.C.S. and provided him a copy.

district elections infographic
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