The potential change to district elections has probably caught a lot of people in this community off guard. I had always opposed district elections, believing that they weren’t needed and that this community did not need to have the divisions.
The reality is that Matt Rexroad has a case that can prove that Davis has RPV (Racially Polarized Voting). As explained last week, RPV exists “when there is a difference in how members of a protected class vote versus members not within the protected class.” This is not a high bar by any means.
The evidence is fairly overwhelming, as we discussed last week. That isn’t necessarily something unique to Davis – but it is why California has passed the law they did to give racial and ethnic minorities more power in the electoral process. It’s also a reason why no one has successfully won a challenge to a claim of RPV.
There are many who argue that district elections will not make a huge difference in Davis or that they have to go to seven or nine districts. I don’t agree.
Just looking at last year’s council election – and the Gloria Partida versus Dan Carson match up – disproves that theory. Going from four percent Latino in a precinct to 20 percent changed the expected margin in that race from a Carson +5 to a Partida +20.
As we noted in our previous data analysis, the range in Davis is clearly a lot wider than many people think, with precincts that range from 60 percent white voters to 88 percent white voters. We saw in numerous races that even that small change from four to 20 percent Latino makes a very broad difference.
In the Feinstein-De Leon Senate race, the numbers move from Feinstein +22 to Feinstein +8.
In a multi-candidate race those percentages are sufficient to elect a good deal more people of color than we have had in the past.
The data therefore debunks the belief that (A) there is no RPV in Davis, and (B) that district elections won’t make it more likely for people of color to get elected.
The reality is that the city is not going to fight this challenge – because they most certainly will lose.
Beyond that, the council has to make a number of decisions.
First question is when they will change to district elections. Originally, the city’s belief was that they could wait for 2022 to make the change. Matt Rexroad told the Vanguard early on that they would fight that and they thought they would prevail.
November makes a lot more sense if the concern is getting the maximum Latino and Asian voters out. Just looking at 2016 and 2018 – in the general election Latinos and Asians are less than 15 percent of voters in primaries, whereas they are around 18 to 19 percent in the general. While that is not necessarily earth shattering, it is about a 30 percent increase.
But even more than that, the voter turnout across the board is vastly different. Most primaries have less than 50 percent voter turnout, versus general elections with upwards of 70 percent overall turnout. Even forgetting the issue of RPV, the participation rates during the general demonstrate a need to consider the change.
Truth is, Davis was the only city in the county still voting for council elections in June as opposed to November.
The staff report makes it clear that a move to November 2020 is possible. Staff also addresses the issue of the sales tax renewal, finding that they could put the sales tax renewal on the ballot for March, while putting the council elections on for November.
To me the case for November is fairly overwhelming if you believe more participation in local elections is more valuable. True, the council election would get wrapped into state and national trends, especially in a presidential year. And the voters who participate will be less informed than the group that participates in June – but that’s the nature of the local community anyway.
Three more issues that should be addressed. I’m not a big fan of the idea of going beyond five council members at this time. I know some are arguing for it. I have seen smaller communities with more members on a governing body, I’m not convinced that it is a great thing, and it would actually serve to prolong meetings because there will be more members needing to speak and it could take longer to gain consensus.
It is something that in the long term we should consider, however, as it could provide not only more diversity in terms of ethnic and racial make up, but also the possibility of a student district with a student councilmember.
On the selection of the mayor. The easiest way to go about doing this would be to rotate. There is the possibility of an at-large mayor with a district election council.
Contrary to some claims, that does not make a strong mayor system. San Luis Obispo, the example I am most familiar with, still has a weak mayor and a city manager system of government. The mayor is elected at large and separately, but only serves two years rather than the four years of councilmembers, and also has the same vote as those on the council.
My guess is the city will go to a rotational basis, which is what the school board does and the board of supervisors. The advantage there, everyone gets a chance to be mayor during their term of office.
On the sequence of elections, I don’t have any ulterior motive – I just believe that Dan Carson and Gloria Partida were elected to four-year terms and should be allowed to serve four years. You simply change the districts as they come up for election.
Finally, someone suggested we might consider term limits down the line. Philosophically, I’m opposed to term limits as I believe the public has the right to vote for whom they want for as long as they want. I’m not convinced that the legislature is advantaged by that move – although it seems a bit better with the reforms to allow people to serve longer in a given body.
Looking back on the history of Davis, there are remarkably few people who have served as many as three terms. Sue Greenwald served three terms until 2012 and was defeated for a fourth term in 2012. Other than that, it appears that Tom Tomasi, Gerry Adler and Dave Rosenberg appear to be the only others to serve three terms in the last 50 years.
It will be interesting, as both Lucas Frerichs and Brett Lee are likely to seek their third terms next year some time, depending perhaps on the configurations of districts.
—David M. Greenwald reporting