The Conundrum of Municipal Elections – How To Fix Them

Continually changing demographics have resulted in the under representation in local government of significant groups in cities across the country. Cities that now include large numbers of residents from various backgrounds overwhelmingly are governed by councils that have retained the same ethic makeup as before such population shifts. As with ethnic makeup, much the same thing can be said about the gender makeup of local governmental bodies.

In the past year in California, several lawsuits have met the issue of ethnic representation head on, with solutions that have in the past been largely ineffective in producing desired results. Anaheim, a city that in recent years has seen its electorate develop a Latino majority, is governed by an all-white city council. In response to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, a settlement was reached to end the prior at-large election

system and to divide the city into election districts. In a similar case in Palmdale, a judge has voided the last municipal election and ordered a new election with to be formed election districts.

California Assembly member Roger Hernandez has introduced AB 2715 to require non-charter California cities with more than 100,000 residents

to have councilmanic districts. There are around two dozen cities that would be required to create districts to comply with the requirement of AB 2715 should it become law, and significant numbers of residents and city officials across the state are not happy with such a prospect.

But does election by district mean that voters will elect a diverse, ethnically representative council? The answer lies in where the voters live and in how much gerrymandering is going to be done to create “Ethnic” districts. The effects of outrageous gerrymandering have had a profound effect on national politics, as it has resulted in a House of Representatives ruled by members who are unrepresentative of the majority of US voters, but who are elected over and over from artificial districts designed to maximize the power of minority viewpoints.

In my home city of West Covina, population around 115,000, there was an effort a few years ago to abandon the long-standing system of at large elections and to divide the city into five council districts. This movement had nothing to do with ethnicity, but rather it was a response to the fact that all five council members resided in a single, upscale neighborhood, and it was felt that they did

not have the interests of the majority of residents, ethnicities aside. The measure lost two-to-one, and without it today, we have a city council that is ethnically diverse and that now includes members who reside in various areas of the city.

But what we no longer have is a gender diverse council, and council districts cannot change that. After many, many years of having a least one woman member of the council, in West Covina all five current members are men. In the city of Los Angeles, which has long had council districts, there is certainly ethnic diversity, but after years of having three, four, or five female members of the 15-person council, for several years now the LA council has included a single female member. Election by council district could not change that.

But there is a third method besides at large and district systems, a method that could well address all of these issues, without any use of gerrymandering. In the city of Santa Clarita, CA, this third system will be in use in 2016. The State of California sued Santa Clarita based on the facts that while the city’s non-white population increased from 31% to 44% over the last ten years, the five member city council has remained 100% Caucasian. But,

seeing that a division of the city into districts with a goal of insuring ethnic diversity in elections would be difficult as the city is basically homogenous, with no ethnic enclaves, but rather with people of various backgrounds mixed throughout the city, a settlement was reached that takes a different approach – the use of “Cumulative voting”.

Cumulative voting gives each voter the same total number of votes as there are council seats up for election, but unlike in traditional at large systems, voters are not limited to one vote per candidate. So, if in Santa Clarita there are three seats up for election, a voter can cast up to all three votes for a single candidate. Thus, voters who desire to see a specific Latino candidate, or a specific woman candidate, or a specific male Caucasian candidate win a seat, he or she can cast three votes for that person.

Cumulative voting is not a new concept. It has been used in various cities across the county, and at one time Cumulative voting was in use in Illinois for electing its state legislators.

We should all watch and see what the result is in Santa Clarita, and maybe it can become a model for elections across the state, and maybe across the country.

About theHoundDawg

For many years as a lawyer, I saw much of the good and bad of society, and did what I could to right many wrongs. The lack of understanding of what is good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, as evidenced by such events as the election of King W as president, (who as such far surpassed the evil of richard nixon but not quite that of ronald reagan) lead me in a new direction, to spend my time trying to understand what is happening to our society, to try as best I can to spread my insights to others, and along the way to maybe even eke out a living through the internet.
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