The Massive Election Change In California You've Likely Never Heard Of

The Costa Mesa City Council (Courtesy city of Costa Mesa)

Not too long ago, it was fairly rare for California cities to elect council members based on separate districts rather than competing citywide.

But now, a rapid shift is underway.

This past November, 57 cities across California changed how they elected city councils, switching for the first time to elect council members by distinct geographic districts. Many are located in Southern California.

"If you haven't been paying attention, we're actually in the middle of a revolution in local governance in California," said Kati Phillips, a spokeswoman for California Common Cause, a nonprofit that's helped some cities organize independent citizen panels to draw up new council districts that previously were often created by politicians.

Here's how district elections work:

Instead of picking representatives to represent the entire city, known as at-large elections, cities that switch to district elections slice the city into geographic areas. Council members are then elected to represent just the designated neighborhoods near where they live.

The shift means changes for residents who live in those cities, and even more cities are likely to change to district elections soon.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?

The changes are due in large part to legal challenges based on the California Voting Rights Act of 2001. The law protects people of color against voting systems that limit their political voice and seeks to allow minority voters more representatives of their choice.

The argument? Citywide or at-large elections tend to produce councils that fail to represent all neighborhoods — particularly disadvantaged ones. Some councils overseeing cities with diverse populations were led by all-white members, or included several city council members who lived in the same affluent part of the city.

"In a lot of cases, these [California Voting Rights Act] lawsuits are responding to a real, just startling lack of representation in local government, and they're just demanding that the status quo can't remain," Phillips said.

Some of the lawsuits have been brought by attorneys like Malibu lawyer Kevin Shenkman, whose aggressive tactics include threatening to sue cities. Legal costs can soar into the millions of dollars.

WHERE IS THIS HAPPENING?

Over 100 of California's approximately 480 cities currently use district elections for their city councils.

Costa Mesa was among the cities that made the switch from at-large elections for the first time in 2018. Voters there elected three Latino council members, the first time Latinos had been elected to the council in the city's history. More than a third of Costa Mesa's residents are Latino.

Though the job of council member is officially nonpartisan, 23-year-old Manuel Chavez is a Democrat. His election was part of a blue wave that flipped the Costa Mesa council to a majority Democratic panel. It was a big shift for a body that voted last spring to oppose California's sanctuary state law after a heated debate between anti-immigrant backers of the resolution waving American flags and those opposed to it.

"It gives us a chance to have a voice, a bigger voice than we would have before," Chavez said of the city's district elections.

Manuel Chavez, 23, is among three new Latino city council members in Costa Mesa. Until this year, no Latinos had ever been elected to the city's council. (Mary Plummer/LAist)

Palm Springs is set to transition to districts in November 2019. The desert city is already notable as the first city in the country with an all-LGBT council.

But Council member Lisa Middleton said there's more work to do. In a city where Latinos make up more than a quarter of the population, every sitting council member is white.

"In the 80 years that we have been a city, we've elected one African-American and one Latino to our city council. That is it for individuals of color," she said.

Middleton hopes the switch to district elections will redistribute some of the city's political power.

Not all cities are making the shift peacefully.

Santa Monica has been fighting a voting rights act lawsuit since 2016, essentially arguing that it doesn't need it.

Santa Monica Mayor Gleam Davis points out the city is just 8.3 square miles, and she says it lacks many challenges faced by other large cities.

"We are one community. There are certainly issues that affect one neighborhood more than another. But one of the great things about Santa Monica is that we all figure that we're in this together," she said.

Davis also points out voters in Santa Monica have twice rejected measures calling for the city to switch to district elections.

WHAT CHANGES HAVE COME ABOUT SO FAR?

The changes brought on by the California Voting Rights Act thus far have been modest.

Of the 57 newly districted cities in 2018, 25 increased representation for minority groups. That's fewer than half of the cities, points out Robb Korinke with the bipartisan public affairs consulting firm GrassrootsLab. The firm has been tracking local government elections for about a decade.

"It's really in the last two years that this extremely large volume .... of cities have been moving to districts," Korinke said, adding that close to three-quarters of cities with districts have drawn those up within the last two years.

Korinke says the number of cities making the shift to district elections will continue to grow. He anticipates about a third of all cities in California will soon hold district elections.

ARE CITY COUNCILS THE ONLY GOVERNING BODY AFFECTED?

No.

School boards and some other governing bodies like community college districts are making the switch to district elections as well, often prompted by similar lawsuits.

Some big cities like Los Angeles, San Diego and Long Beach have long held district elections. Now, medium-sized and smaller cities are increasingly making the move away from at-large districts.

WHAT'S THE COST TO TAXPAYERS?

Since lawsuits are driving a lot of the change, the cost is largely dependent on how the governing body chooses to respond.

Back in 2015, the city of Palmdale agreed to pay out $4.5 million plus interest to lawyers of three minority residents who sued the city. The city ultimately agreed to the settlement after years of legal battles.

In Palm Springs, the final defense-related costs will be about $30,000 paid to the plaintiff's counsel, according to Middleton, the council member. The sum is far less than the city likely would have paid trying to fight the legal challenge.

WHAT ARE THE DOWNSIDES?

California's city governments are incredibly diverse in size, demographics and many other factors. Some argue that district elections make a lot more sense in certain locations than others.

One negative consequence of moving to district elections: when residents vote by districts, passing controversial initiatives that might benefit an entire city becomes harder. Individual districts may oppose housing for the homeless located in their neighborhoods, for example.

In less populated cities, a candidate could potentially win with a very small number of votes in district elections. And, under district elections, elected officials can be ousted a lot easier than in a citywide election because a recall election takes far fewer votes and less community organizing.

HOW CAN I GET INVOLVED?

District elections tend to lower the barrier to participating in local politics. Depending on what stage in the process your city is in, you could help determine district maps or even consider running for office yourself.

Reaching out to city officials is one good place to start, if you are interested in getting involved. The League of California Cities maintains this online database of city contacts across California.

You can hear the full audio version of this story here.


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