To district or not to district

The three Santa Monica City Council incumbents who were defeated in the recent election opposed district elections for the council and supported the City’s defense against the lawsuit to bring district elections to Santa Monica. According to an article in the Lookout, their replacements, who include Oscar de la Torre, one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, support district elections. That raises the question whether there might now be four votes on the council to abandon the defense against the lawsuit and agree to a settlement that would include district elections.

To give a brief procedural history, the plaintiffs, who brought their suit under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) in early 2018, won in trial court, and the judge ordered district elections that included a Pico Neighborhood district (see map). The City appealed, and the decision was overturned. The plaintiffs have now appealed to the California Supreme Court and briefs are scheduled to be filed in December.

The Pico district ordered by the trial judge.

I hope the City Council does not settle, as I don’t believe district elections would increase the political power of Latinx residents and other historical minorities in Santa Monica.

As I wrote in 2018 not long after the litigation had begun, “usually I’m in favor of district voting, so long as there isn’t gerrymandering, not only because it can diversify who is elected, but also because it’s easier for candidates to run in smaller districts.” But what I wrote then to explain why I didn’t believe districts would be a good idea in Santa Monica still holds:

“Why [not]? Because those same council members who get elected over and over are so paranoid about not being reelected, that they try to please anyone who votes, and that includes, for all of them, residents of the Pico Neighborhood. In that sense, the neighborhood is well represented. And, if you include the school board and the college board along with the council, we have a good record of electing minorities. As a result, I don’t see the logic for the lawsuit, although if districting comes, it would make it less expensive and easier for new candidates to run, which would be a good thing in and of itself.”

Moreover, since I wrote that, in the course of the litigation, it has become apparent that because of the demographics and housing patterns of Santa Monica districting here won’t, or can’t, solve the problems that the CVRA was enacted to solve. It has also become apparent, ironically, that the current system does not prevent members of historic minorities from winning election. Not only did De la Torre win election, but Christine Parra, who is Latina, did also. Meanwhile, Kristin McCowan, who is African-American, won in the election (albeit one that was uncontested) for the balance of former Council Member Greg Morena’s term. (McCowan had been appointed this summer to replace Morena).

Using districts to remedy voting discrimination against minority populations works in jurisdictions where residential segregation is extreme and where the majority population has used at-large elections, or other means, to dilute minority voting power. Santa Monica does have a history of residential segregation. As a result of that history, few African-American and Latinx residents live north of Santa Monica Boulevard (and to a lesser extent south of Pico Boulevard). However, reflecting the relatively low percentage of historic minority residents in Santa Monica (about 16% of Santa Monica residents are Latinx, 10% Asian, and 5% Black), a lot of Anglos also live south of Santa Monica Boulevard, including in the Pico Neighborhood.

As a result, in the course of the litigation it proved impossible to create a district map by which a majority of Latinx residents could be grouped in one or more districts that were even substantially Latinx. The best district the plaintiffs came up with would be about 30% Latinx, but a majority of the city’s Latinx residents would still live outside the district.

There was a lot of discussion in the Court of Appeal ruling about whether a non-majority Latinx district could be a suitable remedy under the CVRA for discrimination against minority voters, and the plaintiffs have appealed on the grounds that it should not be necessary under the CVRA to have a majority-minority district. To me, however, that discussion skips the primary question; namely, what happens to the voting power of the majority of Latinx residents not included in the “Latinx district”?

The plaintiff’s remedy, districts, would put a lot, but not a majority, of Latinx residents in a district where they theoretically would have more power and representation in one election every four years. Meanwhile a majority of Latinx residents (along with all other voters in the city) would lose the right every two years to vote for four or three council members. How would that increase Latinx voting power? A minority of Latinx voters would trade the right to vote for all council members for a somewhat better chance of electing a Latinx candidate in one district, but the majority of Latinx voters would lose the right to vote for all council members while getting nothing in return.

Meanwhile, five or six council members would be elected from districts with very few or nearly no Latinx or African-American voters. What would that do to the political power of historic minorities in Santa Monica? On a national level it has been recognized for some time that the creation in the South of districts that enabled the election of African-Americans, while necessary given the historic realities of Jim Crow and the post-Reconstruction denial of the right to vote, has also led to gerrymandering (“packing and cracking”) that has isolated Black political power and enabled right-wing dominance.

There are arguments in favor of districts that are unconnected to the voting rights of historic minorities. I have friends who believe that they would be better represented by having a representative from their own neighborhoods. They believe district representatives would be more accessible and responsive. As I wrote in 2018, it’s easier to run for office in a small district. Certainly, at some point jurisdictions get so big that the only viable structure is to have representatives from districts.

But there are downsides. Think of the City of Los Angeles, where each council member rules his or her fiefdom (each of which has nearly three times the population of Santa Monica), and any action at the City Council level, including every major development, requires horse trading among the council members. It’s been almost impossible to have citywide planning.

If a jurisdiction has districts, the public needs an elected strong executive so that someone represents everyone, as a whole. Perhaps Santa Monica is big enough for an elected mayor, and as I wrote recently, there is an accountability problem with the city manager system, but that’s a major political issue all by itself. (I want to mention in fairness to De la Torre that he himself has recognized this issue and the need for an elected mayor if we go to districts.)

I hope that before the new council members vote to settle the lawsuit, they reflect on whether they were elected to take away the right of all Santa Monicans, including a majority of Latinx residents, to vote for all seven seats on the City Council.

Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “To district or not to district

  1. It seems that an at-large citywide district using Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) would solve the issue leading to the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit. Also, by increasing the size of the city council there would be better representation of the various constituencies. In a district election where only one person is elected, only one constituency can be represented, the winning constituency. That does not help the other constituencies in the single winner district.

  2. This is a really interesting point that is often overlooked. Your analysis is consistent with the studies done on redistricting here in SM. Thank you for the thoughtful and informed writing. Bookmarked!

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