All indications suggest but do not confirm that a resident of South Davis is behind the filing of the letter and potential lawsuit against the city of Davis. That is a bit ironic because it would appear they are using the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) as leverage to get a seat for South Davis on the council – more on that at another point in time.
I never really thought I would support district elections. However, attempts to fight this would be expensive, probably futile and, perhaps more importantly, impolitic – imagine a supposedly progressive community trying to make the argument that we are too white for district elections to improve the amount of representation for the under-served.
For those who argue that Davis has its minority populations spread relatively evenly throughout the city, I’m not sure they are correct. We don’t have the data yet, but we know from the battle from 2007-2008 to save Valley Oak and the population at Montgomery, that this may not correct at all.
The data here is actually surprisingly strong that the current system disadvantages people of color’s electoral clout in Davis – which is a key showing that Mr. Rexroad and his client(s) must make in order to prevail if their letter were to be challenged.
According to the city analysis: “(The CVRA) prohibits an at-large election system from being applied in a way that impairs the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or influence the outcome of elections because of the dilution or abridgment of the rights of the voters who are members of the protected class.”
The term “racially polarized voting” is defined as voting in which there is a difference “in the choice of candidates or other electoral choices that are preferred by voters in a protected class and in the choice of candidates and electoral choices that are preferred by voters in the rest of the electorate.”
A key point: “The threshold required for showing a violation of the CVRA is low.”
Moreover, the city found that “a minority group does not have to be geographically compact or concentrated to allege a violation of the CVRA.”
There is no requirement for proof of intent and “[t]he main remedy under the CVRA is to move to district-based elections, which is a method of election in which ‘the candidate must reside within an election district . . . and is elected only by voters residing within that election district.'”
Bottom line – if the city analysis is correct, geographic concentrations do not matter and district elections, not choice voting, is the remedy.
Racial Breakdowns and Proportions of People of Color on Council
There is some question over the exact racial breakdown in Davis. To be honest it doesn’t make a huge difference, but all available evidence points to Davis becoming much more racially diverse over the last two decades.
Data from the 2010 census shows that Davis was at that time about 65 percent white. The 2017 State of the City report utilizing the 2015 American Community Survey found about 56.5 percent of the population to be white. That would suggest current totals somewhere between 52 and 55 percent to be reasonable.
But regardless of whether people of color represent 35 percent of the population as they did in 2010 or now 40 to 45 percent of the population, we can see that the electoral system consistently disadvantages them.
It is tempting to look at the current composition of the council with one Latina and one Asian and conclude that Davis is about where it should be. However, looking at the 10- and 20-year numbers puts this into perspective.
Since 2010, if you calculate on the basis of five seats per year, you come up with 50 possible seats. Of those, 10 have been held by people of color – eight years for Brett Lee and two years for Gloria Partida (for the period that ends with the next election in 2020 and started with the election in June of 2010).
Ten out of 50 puts the percentage of people of color at 20 percent. That is about half of what you would expect if the electoral results are proportionate to the share of the population.
Over a 20-year period, with 100 possible seats, people of color held 22 of those, slightly better.
However, that throws Asians – Ruth Asmundson, Lamar Heystek and Brett Lee – in with the single Latina elected in 2018.
If we look at those in the protected class – blacks, Latinos, Native Americans – Davis fares even worse, with just two of the 100 seats when we should expect somewhere between 15 to 20 percent.
Bottom line – Davis may be a much whiter community compared to other surrounding communities, but it still under-represents people of color in its governing boards.
Going to November Elections Is Recommended
In the city’s release, they noted, “The City contacted the Yolo County Elections Office to determine the applicable deadlines for the March 3, 2020 election. The County has stated that it would have to receive the district boundaries before September 12. This would not provide adequate time for the City to conduct the required public hearings and vote on an ordinance establishing districts.”
They conclude: “Therefore, the March 3, 2020 election will not be impacted by any decision to transition to districts. The first Davis municipal election that could potentially be district-based would be in March 2022.”
But Matt Rexroad told the Vanguard: “They can easily move to November and make this work.”
The city told me in response that it may be more complicated than that. Since I can’t evaluate the city’s argument, all I can say is that Matt Rexroad makes two critical points that are correct.
First, the city of Davis is now the only city in the county that holds its city elections during the primary.
Second, he is correct in arguing that “many more Latinos and Asians will have the opportunity to run and vote in elections where they are more likely to participate.”
Holding elections in June and in this year in March further disadvantages people of color.
Across the board, people are more likely to participate in November than June – but far more so for people of color. The turnout for whites in November is 59 percent versus 43 percent in the primary. For Latinos, it falls from 40 percent to 21 percent and for Asians from 44 percent to 26.5 percent.
Latinos are just 5 percent of the voter pool during the primary, but over 7 percent in the general. Asians go from 7.5 percent to 8.7 percent and whites fall from 87 to 84.
The numbers don’t fly off the page at you – if anything, what does fly off the page is the fact that whites are about 55 percent of the population, but are 78 percent of those registered to vote and 84 percent of those who actually vote.
But it is clear that if you want more people of color to participate in the election, you hold it in November of even years, not in the primary.
We understand that the city may not be able to move the elections to November 2020 – but, given where things are headed, they should try.
The potential litigant would not have to show that going to district elections would produce a better result. The data, though, pretty convincingly shows that people of color are disadvantaged in Davis compared to their share of the overall population.
We would like to analyze the data at the precinct level because I believe it will show there are more concentration pockets in Davis than most people are aware of.
Finally it is worth noting that by going to district elections, we lower the barrier to entry. Instead of having to launch a citywide election, the election might be one-fifth to one-quarter as large. That means instead of reaching 20 to 30 thousand people, they may only have to reach out to 4000 or 5000. That would greatly reduce the cost, the size of an organization and might greatly lower the barrier to entry.
One question that is up in the air is how to select the mayor. Obviously, having the top vote-getter will not work under a district system. That means two options – rotate the mayor or have four districts and an at-large mayor.
According to the League of Cities analysis: “There is a question of whether a by-district election system with an at-large mayor qualifies as an at-large election system that is vulnerable to a CVRA challenge.”
They add, “While the issue of whether a by-district election system with an at-large mayor qualifies as an at-large system has arisen in previous CVRA cases, there are no binding, appellate decisions on the issue.”
My preference would be a mixed system and a stronger mayor, but it is not clear if that can happen.
—David M. Greenwald reporting