On Thursday, the board listened to a presentation from attorney David Soldani, who argued that the district had little choice but to approve a resolution moving the district to a system whereby each member of the board represents a specific geographic area broken into five districts.
He explained that the Davis district is among the last of the districts using an at-large method of elections. Under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) of 2001, since its adoption, many public agencies – not just school districts – have transitioned their voting model from at-large to district-based.
“The California Voting Rights Act says you cannot use an at-large method if it impairs the ability for a protected class to elect representation of its choice or to influence the outcome of elections,” he said. Moreover, he said, “there have been changes to this law that enable people to submit a demand to the district to make that change. Once received it commences a very tight timeline under which the district has to make a decision whether to change and ultimately when to complete the process.”
Taking this step, he explained, would protect the district both from the demand and from liability under the act. That protection would last until 2020.
The district – if they approved the resolution – would have a series of public hearings which would commence the process of drawing maps of districts, including what those districts would look like. He said that if they started this process right away, they would complete this process in time for district elections in 2020.
Joe DiNunzio commented, “If we’re not being forced, we’re being strongly urged to go down this path.”
Mr. DiNunzio added, “The odds are deeply against us.”
Mr. Soldani quantified it, “No one has successfully defended such a suit.”
He warned the board that postponing action, if the district received a letter threatening legal action, the district would be forced in a very quick process to create a district-based election system. Whereas, if they act now, they would have approximately 18 months and be able to approve their own resolution.
Basically, he said, “If you take action now, you have more control.”
Alan Fernandes said, “I strongly support this action. I support it knowing that in a place as homogenous as Davis, it will create some challenges. I think there are benefits to having us all run community-wide because it ensures that we speak broadly to our whole community. That said, I would think we would be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge that, in our district, there have been inequities that we try our best to correct when we see them.”
Board President Bob Poppenga said, “I think the goal is good.” He added, “I would have liked to have had more discussion about this. I feel like this has been forced on us.”
He said that “the expensive litigation is no minor factor and the fact that no school district has prevailed when they have been sued.” But he did say, “I would have to be convinced that this is on balance a good move for the district in this town… but I could be proven wrong.”
My thoughts on this…
The first and most interesting aspect of this is that this seems to be a preemptive move. The district is not indicating that they have been sued. Rather, they are seeking to “avoid the potential for costly litigation under the CVRA.”
I have no doubt that Mr. Soldani’s assessment is correct – the district has much more say in the process if they embark on the change now, rather than waiting to be sued.
But what was missing from his analysis is an assessment of the likelihood of being sued.
The second issue that bears some scrutiny is the standard that “you cannot use an at-large method if it impairs the ability for a protected class to elect representation of its choice or to influence the outcome of elections.” Given the demographics of Davis, the lack of real ethnic enclaves, or even heavy concentrations of low income residents, it bears some question as to whether the district is actually at risk here.
I posed this to one of the board members last night and the response was – do we want to risk costly litigation to bear that out? To which I might respond, having thought more about it, what is the chance that the district would have borne any litigation here at all?
On balance, I believe district elections can be good things in communities with sizable minority populations that are locked out of power by numbers and participation rates.
Woodland is a good example – it was just a few years ago that Woodland, a town with a very heavy Latino population, had a council that was all-white, male and Republican. The results have flipped with district elections – three Latino members on the council.
And yet, there in 2016, Enrique Fernandez won his district with 1400 votes out of a total of about 3000 in a city with more than 50,000. The good news is that such districts hold the costs way down and enable the candidates to get out to their voters. The downside is low rates of participation.
In Davis, I don’t see the overriding need that necessitates district elections. As Cindy Pickett pointed out on Thursday, participation rates are a concern here. We saw a low candidate rate in 2018 with just three candidates, and really only two viable ones for two spots. Will district elections leave us with a vacuum of viable candidates in key locations?
Finally, to what end? In Woodland, we saw a clear shift when going to district elections, but in a very homogeneous Davis, the upside is not as clear. But here we go – like it or not.
—David M. Greenwald reporting