Commentary: District Elections Coming, Like Them or Not – Here’s Why That Could Be a Good Thing

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A certain columnist believes that if Davis citizens had been given a chance to vote on district elections for school board they would have rejected it with 80 percent of the vote.  While I tend to agree with that point of view, there has been good reason to take such decisions out of the hands of local residents.

My initial reaction to the news was fairly negative.  In Davis, I largely do not see the upside of the district election – other than to reduce the amount of money it takes to get elected and perhaps open the doors to new perspectives.

As a reader reminded me, my thinking was overly white male and I need to consider district elections from a broader perspective.  Indeed, district elections transformed the city council in a place not far from here, Woodland.  It was just a few years ago that the Woodland City Council was five white male Republicans.  Now the majority on the council are Latino.

The school board does not believe they have a choice on this matter.

Attorney David Soldani told the board, “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.”

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.”

The reasoning here is simple – the district could be sued under the provisions of the Voting Rights Act and, if sued, legal counsel believes they would lose.

Bob Dunning, interestingly enough, argues that “some of us don’t think losing would be inevitable.”  Of course, he did not argue that point or make a case.  The case would probably go that Davis is sufficiently homogeneous that it is not clear that the at-large method impairs the ability for a protected class to elect representation.

Joe DiNunzio commented, “If we’re not being forced, we’re being strongly urged to go down this path.”

He said, “If we don’t go in this direction, the odds are extraordinarily high that we will be sued.” He added, “If we are sued, it will be expensive to defend ourselves, more than likely.”

Mr. DiNunzio added, “The odds are deeply against us.”

Mr. Soldani quantified it, “No one has successfully defended such a suit.”

There is something to that.  Davis in 2018, for example, elected women of color Gloria Partida and Cindy Pickett in at-large districts, while it elected Melissa Moreno in a district election.  There is probably a case to be made about the lack of ethnic enclaves in the community – but is this really the fight we need to have?

The upshot would be that Davis could be one of the few cities to keep at-large districts, but the downside is that, if the district lost, they would lose a lot of control and at least this way they can draw some districts that make some sense.

Alan Fernandes put forth a different view, painting it in the best possible light.

“It is also important to understand the overarching purpose of the law,” Mr. Fernandes noted. “I strongly support this action.”

I was skeptical of this view as is Bob Dunning, who writes, “The purpose of the law, of course, is to be sure that underrepresented groups get a seat at the table, but it’s unclear in a town such as Davis if district elections will achieve that goal.”

He argues: “How much difference such a dramatic shift in the way we elect board members will make is unclear, but there’s a better than even chance we’ll end up with the same sort of board members making the same sorts of decisions.

“Seemingly, the dramatically lower cost of running for a seat under the district election format will scare up a number of new faces who wouldn’t otherwise have considered running,” he writes.  “Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing remains to be seen, but it’s hard to argue against increased participation.”

But why assume that that would be the case when there is empirical evidence to the contrary?  I have already given the example of Woodland and transformative change brought by district elections.

There is a second point that elections to current school board positions have at times been clustered toward certain parts of town and away from other parts of town.  Under district elections, each portion of town will always have representation.

Finally there is this: the barrier to entry will be lower.  Does that matter?  When people had to spend money and run a campaign, four people signed up for three seats last fall.  When the cost of entry was nothing and the promise was a few months on the school board, a large number of very qualified people showed up to be appointed to election.

People that would never attempt to seek electoral office signed up for the appointment process.

Whether that turns out to be a positive – like Bob Dunning, I’m ambivalent – or not, having a broader pool of applicants is always a good thing.

And that’s why the lawsuit, even in Davis, would probably succeed.  While there are no enclaves and low numbers of disadvantaged population in Davis, the lower barrier to entry means more people in those categories could conceivably enter and, if they enter, they have a better chance of winning.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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18 thoughts on “Commentary: District Elections Coming, Like Them or Not – Here’s Why That Could Be a Good Thing”

  1. Ron Glick

    It wasn’t that long ago that a majority of white school board members denied a request from a diverse group of about 30 parents to fund a section of a class at a third site and then kept the program in question at the school nearest to two of that same majoritie’s residences while eliminating it at all but one other site in the district.

      1. Ron Glick

        I’d rather not elaborate. I saw what I saw and said what I said. I don’t think the board members had malicious intent. I think it was more of an unconscious bias situation. Sort of like when you asked for a little funding for Mariachi Puente.

        1. Hiram Jackson

          To be clear, although the district allows Mariachi Puente to practice after school at school sites as a school club, the district provides no funding to Mariachi Puente for anything.

          What we did ask the district for was a high school mariachi class, which they approved for Da Vinci high school.  That group functions as its own school music ensemble, apart from Mariachi Puente.

  2. Bill Marshall

    there has been good reason to take such decisions out of the hands of local residents.

    So begins the “slippery slope”… does that also apply to districts for CC elections?  Measure J/R renewals?  Am thinking all same-same…

    1. Richard McCann

      This is about providing sufficient representation to socioeconomic groups that are now closed out of much of the decision making. District elections is one solution, although not necessarily the best. Ranked preference voting, which was used in the recent SF mayor’s race, is probably a better one that ignores the constraints of geography.

      So, yes to CC races, but no to city-wide initiatives. It’s not a slippery slope. There’s a pretty clear delineation. On the other hand, two-thirds vote requirements are anti-democratic because they given one group two votes to one vote for the other group.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Richard… if legally possible for DJUSD, I’d support the ranked preference voting… as opposed to districts… might be a good ‘experiment’, little risk/cost to implement, and may very well decrease the likelihood of litigation.

  3. Bill Marshall

     “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.”

    That is a damn big “if” in Davis… and it cannot just be postulated, but  demonstratively shown, to prevail in a court of law.

  4. Matt Williams

    “My initial reaction to the news was fairly negative.  In Davis, I largely do not see the upside of the district election – other than to reduce the amount of money it takes to get elected and perhaps open the doors to new perspectives.”

    That was my initial reaction as well.

    However, the devil is in the details, so I’m looking forward to hearing more information about both the “what” and the “how” of DJUSD’s plan.

  5. Tia Will

    other than to reduce the amount of money it takes to get elected and perhaps open the doors to new perspectives.”

    I see that as reason enough in and of itself.

    While there are no enclaves and low numbers of disadvantaged population in Davis”

    This statement is only true if you limit the definition of “enclaves” and “disadvantaged” to ethnic. If you include economically disadvantaged, the statement does not hold.

    1. Matt Williams

      This statement is only true if you limit the definition of “enclaves” and “disadvantaged” to ethnic. If you include economically disadvantaged, the statement does not hold.

      Maybe, maybe not Tia.  It depends on how the district boundaries are drawn.  If redistricting follows the rules laid out in November 2008 by the passage of California Proposition 11, the Voters First Act, then the economically disadvantaged may well be spread across the five DJUSD districts.

    2. Bill Marshall

      Hard to image a “district” containing 1/5 of the District population, that could be drawn to accommodate economically disadvantaged (assuming the term itself could be reasonably defined) folk, without very serious gerrymandering.

      Could be proved wrong, but am very skeptical… and then, to what purpose?  To have one, maybe two trustees representing the economically disadvantaged (depending on definition)?  For any given board action, you have to count to three.  If  the one district is composed of the economically disadvantaged, that means the other districts would have even a higher proportion of folk on the other end of the bell curve.  A form of segregation, if you will… inherently divisive.(?)

      Also, this would mean at least 2-3 more types of ballots for an election that includes a DJUSD board contest.  There is a definite cost to that… is it worth even a de minimus cost (compared to the big picture) to do this, with zero assurance it would change any outcomes?  Just for a philosophical idea, with no real substance?  That is important to some… but not to me.

      We’ll agree to disagree, it appears.  But if it comes to pass, the District should pay the additional costs for the different ballots…

  6. Matt Williams

    In a time where Budget Shortfalls are regularly in the news, spenting tens of thousands of dollars defending a lawsuit … especially since the flip side of  I largely do not see the upside of going to district elections is  I don’t really see any downside either.  So, paraphrasing the old Tareyton Cigarettes commercial, “I’d rather switch than fight.”  

    It is the fiscally prudent decision.

    1. Bill Marshall

      Maybe… known costs, likely ‘segregation’ of voters, vs. a “perhaps”… as a sometimes gambler, and someone who tends to fight bullies, and understanding the law, I’d “rather fight”… I see nothing good and substantive with the proposed change , and can see several downsides… divisiveness, labeling, arguments over boundaries (and trying to justify those arguments, like, forever).

      If it was put to a vote, I’d be a “nay”.  But it won’t be.  It’ll be done, and 5 years after, when things either don’t change or get worse, I can be justified/petty in saying, “I told you so!”

      I see no ‘upside’ in the proposal, except a PC/feel good reaction from some.  Effective it will not be (explained in previous post).

    2. Ron Glick

      “The last televised cigarette ad ran at 11:50 p.m. during The Johnny Carson Show on January 1, 1971.”

      That was over 48 years ago Matt. You need some newer material.

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