In a recent column, columnist Bob Dunning argues that the district elections solution “only makes things worse.” The trouble is – he is possibly correct on this point. The council opted to go with the most “vanilla” configuration they could find and seemed more concerned with getting representation for South Davis than maximizing representation for underrepresented groups like people of color or students.
Mr. Dunning writes that district elections is “a concept that all five City Council members strongly opposed and yet a concept that all five City Council members voted to implement.”
On this point, I think Mr. Dunning has done the largest disservice to the community that reads his column. There remains within the community segments who believe that the city should have fought this. What they fail to recognize is that cities with a far lower percentage of people of color have attempted to do so, only to lose – at very great costs.
I have yet to see the opinion from an attorney with experience in this recommend fighting as the way forward.
However, Mr. Dunning is on safer ground breaking down the districts.
“Which district has been designated as an ‘Asian’ district and which has been designated as a ‘Latino’ district is unclear,” he writes. “These districts were drawn under the dubious presumption that all members of an ethnic group will vote exclusively for a member of their own ethnic group.
“But, if you do the math, that faulty line of reasoning would lead to each district electing a white person to the council, given that there is a solid white majority in every district,” he continues. “In other words, if Davis truly has racially polarized voting as charged — we don’t — this district map virtually guarantees an all-white City Council every time we have an election.”
He notes that, in the most favorable district for an Asian candidate, “only 29 percent of the population is Asian. And there’s no guarantee that a Latino candidate or an Asian candidate will even run for office in either of those districts.”
He adds, “Add that to the fact that in a district election a candidate must be the top vote-getter to gain a seat, while in a citywide election, placing second and sometimes third is enough to get elected.”
He later argues: “The problem here is that Davis doesn’t have a majority population of Asians or Latinos in one specific area of town, which makes the whole notion of district elections folly.”
Bob Dunning, like Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Partida, has a point. But it’s not the whole story.
First of all, council never made it a priority to maximize representation for people of color. Instead, they drew a map which I would call fairly vanilla. It was a straight up map. It was drawn to keep neighborhoods together. It was drawn to make sure that South Davis had a representative. It was not drawn to make sure either Asians or Latinos had representatives.
Second, among the available maps, we know for instance Map 7-5, the one I favored actually, had the potential of a minority-majority district, with another district that was just 53 percent white. Would that have guaranteed representation for either group? Of course not.
The concept of Racially Polarized Voting does not mean that people of color only vote for people who look like them.
Keep in mind what national voting patterns look like. Across the nation, whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians all have distinct voting patterns. People of color tend to vote for the Democrats. Whites tend to vote for Republicans. Like it or not, the most powerful determination of how someone is going to vote is their race and ethnicity.
The point was made to me by one of the councilmembers that Asians and Latinos are not necessarily going to prefer the same candidate. That may be true. But we know that, nationally, Latinos voted for Hillary Clinton by about 65 percent of the vote. That’s about the same percentage of Asians who voted for Clinton.
Meanwhile, whites heavily voted for Republicans including Trump.
Does that mean that Latinos and Asians were going to vote for a Latino or Asian candidate? No. But it does mean that they get more of a say in who they do get to vote for.
Third, we never got to see a district map that was optimized to maximize minority representation. We saw some that had heavily renter-majority districts – this wasn’t one of them – but not one specifically drawn to maximize people of color.
Finally, a very important point has been missing in this – the mechanism to improve representation by people of color is not just about numerical numbers, but also the barrier to access.
Going from at-large to five districts means, instead of dealing with a huge 65,000 or so person electorate, each district will have about 13,000 people. Going to seven would have meant about 9000 or so people per district.
That means that to win a seat before required at least 7000 votes, and maybe as many as 11,000. Now you might have to win 3500 votes. With seven districts, it might have been as low as 2000.
An at-large race would cost you a minimum of $20,000 and probably $30,000 to $40,000 to win. Now you might need $5,000 to $10,000.
That is a huge factor. It is going to open up possible competitive campaigns for many people who were priced out.
And now, instead of scrambling with a large organization to walk the city, you only have to walk a portion of the city – and that portion is geographically close to the candidate’s home. District voters are going to have a much higher proportion of “nearby neighbors” than at-large voters. Seven would have been better, but five is still an improvement.
In the end, I thought if we were going to do these districts to improve representation, we should go all the way and do seven districts – lowering barriers and hopefully maximizing the opportunity for students and people of color to win.
We didn’t go that far, but I think Mr. Dunning is underestimating just how much changing the barrier to entry will change things.
—David M .Greenwald reporting