By Sharon Byrne
I attended the League of Women Voters’ panel presentation on district elections January 21st.
Whatever you’re doing while reading this, drop it and go watch the video of this discussion, below. Carve 2 hours out of your schedule (yes!), and watch it. I’ve been following this issue closely, and I learned a great deal in this session.
Oddly enough, it won’t matter if you’re for or against. The issue is before a judge, and a whole lot of things hang in the balance of his decision. It is virtually certain the judge will find racially polarized voting, and the remedy imposed will be district elections. It may include a switch for city elections to move to even years. This is an election year. The immediate need now is to find a way for citizens to participate in the drawing of the district lines, and figure out a schedule of when district elections will start. They could start this year or next year. Do you cut over all at once, or phase in 3 districts with the next election, and then the rest later? What happen to the existing council members who still have terms to serve out? Should a citizens’ commission draw the lines? Can we even do that?
Speakers included Shane Stark, former counsel for Santa Barbara County; Kristi Schmidt with the City of Santa Barbara; Jacqueline Inda, plaintiff on the lawsuit against the city to impose district elections; Lucas Zucker with CAUSE (formerly PUEBLO); and Sheila Lodge, former mayor of Santa Barbara and current Planning Commissioner.
The League took the position of favoring at-large elections during the time when the city moved to adopt them and left the old district elections system in 1968. Part of this session was for them to get enough information to decide whether to revise that position. Since 1968, Latinos have become a larger population of the city, and the California Voting Rights Act passed in 2001 to allow the imposition of district elections as a remedy to racially polarized voting. Under that act, a city cannot recover its cost from successfully defending itself from a lawsuit charging racially polarized voting, yet must pay the plaintiffs’ cost should it lose. No city has prevailed after being sued, so the deck is stacked against the city that tries to defend itself.
The speakers had very interesting viewpoints to present, and Shane Stark had the legal details down. The districts must be equal in population, but voter registration is another story. You could see where some future districts could be very voter-dense, while others have low registration.
Jacqui Inda laid out a timeline that went back quite a few years, and leveled the charge that the city’s flat-footedness in response to their call for district elections escalated the plaintiffs’ decision to file the lawsuit. The CAUSE speaker, Lucas Zucker, had very interesting statistics. 26% of registered Latinos voted in the last city council election, vs 41% of whites. In odd years, voting in both groups drops off markedly from even years. City elections cost $200,000+ to city taxpayers, while running them on the county’s ballot costs $60,000. Far more people vote for school board members in even years than they do for city council members in odd years. Both Inda and Zucker encouraged the League to push for even year elections as part of the district elections process.
Sheila Lodge had perhaps some of the most eye-opening points, and covered decades of election shifts in her commentary. She’d talked with the mayor of Modesto, and someone else there, a Latina, that was disappointed in district elections. They only got to vote for 1 councilmember every 4 years now, instead of multiple councilmembers every 2 years – a striking loss in being able to determine your city government make-up. Some plaintiffs have argued that if they had a representative on city council, they could get needed improvements in their community, like the Cacique St bridge replaced on the lower Eastside. Sheila pointed out that election does not confer automatic power to commandeer city resources. You still need 4 votes on Council to do anything. Turns out Cacique neighbors didn’t actually want their bridge replaced with a road. They like the street quiet. The people around them wanted a road bridge for easier commuting through the area.
Things will start moving very quickly on this front, starting with a presentation of a plan to Council for public input on this process in early February. Get informed and engaged right now.