Commentary: Changing My Mind on District Elections

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Lucas Frerichs in August 2019 discussing district elections

By David M. Greenwald

I was one of the few people in this community that was not immediately opposed to district elections—I saw the potential for making it easier for people of color to get elected to office and also enabling students to have more of a voice in certain districts.

What ended up happening was the election of three white males to council.  At an individual level, the city elected three very good people who will undoubtedly do a good job leading this city through these tough times, but we now end up with a council of four white men and Gloria Partida.  If that was going to be the outcome of district elections, we would be better off with at-large elections.

It is not so simple to just go back at this point.  The city of Santa Monica won an appellate court decision when they argued that they were unlikely to increase their numbers of Latino candidates—with the largest district just 30 percent Latino in a city that is about 14 percent.

But that decision has been depublished—meaning it is not a binding precedent on other courts—and the California Supreme Court has taken it up.

The City of Santa Monica, which has vast resources that Davis does not have, expended a huge amount of money to fight this.  Should they prevail at the Supreme Court and win a broad ruling, it might make sense for the city of Davis to revisit district elections—however, should they lose at the Supreme Court level or win a very narrow ruling, it may not make sense.

The Davis City Council elections ultimately drew about nine candidates, the same number as it drew for a two-seat at-large election in 2018.  It drew just one person of color, it drew two women (in the same district), and two students (in the same district)—although it drew a third person, Dillan Horton, who had been a recent student.

In a city like Woodland, where there are enclaves of Latino voters, creating districts made it far more likely that Latinos could run in fairly small districts and have the vote-share to get elected.

In Davis, it appears that districts worked in the opposite manner.  You could not get to a majority of voters in a district who were people of color and, while you could get close, it was usually a split between Asians and Latino voters and therefore diluted rather than magnified their influence.

In addition, as anyone who studies election systems know, you get more diversity if you have multi-member districts than single-member, winner take all.  Notice in the US, with single-member districts, you end up with two parties—whereas in systems with proportional districts, you end up with multiple parties.  The same concept carries over.

Even accepting district elections are here to stay for the foreseeable future, there are ways to improve things.  Our council made three decisions that seemed to contribute to this problem.

First, we went to November elections.  The idea was that by going to November instead of June, more people will vote and the voting universe will be more diverse.  Here we need to be careful because we held the election during a pandemic when at least half the students were not in town and voting here.

However, what I saw as an observer is that the Presidential election literally sucked most of the oxygen out of the room.  The public is usually focused on the council and perhaps a land use measure like DISC, but with the magnitude of the Presidential election, all focus was on that and away from local issues.

Second, the council had the option of going to more than five districts, and it chose to stick with five, even though student groups pushed for seven.  That made it a good deal less likely that either students or people of color would be able to get elected.

Third, for the most part, the lines were drawn with the idea of incumbent protection.  They did draw the lines that put Will Arnold and Brett Lee in the same district, but the council always assumed, I think, that Will Arnold would not seek reelection but Brett Lee would.  Ironically, the opposite occurred.  That left four fairly well-defined districts for the incumbents, and a fifth open seat where Josh Chapman is the apparent winner—although it is not for sure.

So what can and should we do?

I have suggested a council subcommittee be appointed to look into options, though the council people I have spoken to so far have not been that receptive.

Those who believe we should simply go back need to understand that it is not that simple.  First, we do not have clear Supreme Court guidance on the issue.  When the Supreme Court rules on Santa Monica, we can see if their ruling is narrow—referring to the specifics of Santa Monica—or if it is broader.  We will also see if they instruct the legislature to clean up CVRA (California Voting Rights Act).

Until there is guidance there, we are flying blind with a high probability for incurring costs.

Second, we should look into the potential of seven districts and what that looks like.  We are likely going to have to redraw the districts for 2022 anyway.

Third, we should reconsider whether to hold November elections for city council.  That could also trigger a lawsuit, but we should at least look into it.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Also would like to invite you to participate in our webinar with Mayor Gloria Partida, this might be a topic of conversation – Friday, November 20 at noon.  To register – hit this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_kswA1_FqRoG1VYL6S-FuQw


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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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43 thoughts on “Commentary: Changing My Mind on District Elections”

  1. Keith Olsen

    What ended up happening was the election of three white males to council.  At an individual level, the city elected three very good people who will undoubtedly do a good job leading this city through these tough times

    They are three very good people who will do a good job but that doesn’t matter because they are WHITE.

      1. Keith Olsen

        but we now end up with a council of four white men and Gloria Partida.  If that was going to be the outcome of district elections, we would be better off with at-large elections.

        You could not get to a majority of voters in a district who were people of color

  2. Ron Glick

    “It drew just one person of color,…”

    Who ran against a popular incumbent.

    “it drew two women (in the same district),”

    Could be the result of vote splitting.

    1. David Greenwald Post author

      “Who ran against a popular incumbent.”

      Who ended up going from an at large situation to a single member district mid-campaign.

      “Could be the result of vote splitting.”

      Even adding the two women’s votes together falls short of Chapman

  3. Tia Will

    You could not get to a majority of voters in a district who were people of color “

    When the premise is dubious, the outcome is unlikely to be any better. Assuming that “people of color” will take the place of a single minority voting block ( which in itself may be questionable) thus putting an individual ( who may or may not be of a single color) on the council is IMO, a very weak strategy if your goal is diversity. But I suspect that the plaintiff and his lawyer knew that when they forced the issue.

  4. Eric Gelber

    Ron Glick is right about sample size. Three district elections, two with popular incumbents, is not going to reveal anything about the impact of district elections.  

    Davis is not going to consistently have a diverse council until it has a more diverse population. That means, for example, making housing more affordable and not implementing policies that perpetuate non-diversity, like a Davis-based buyer’s program.

  5. Ron Oertel

    Not sure why David doesn’t “celebrate” that a person with a disability has been re-elected, given the historic discrimination they’ve faced.

    Regarding “people of color”, they are not one category.  Davis “over-represents” Asians, using David’s logic. So, neither Dillan nor Gloria (for example) can adequately represent that “people of color” group, using David’s logic.

      1. Ron Oertel

        The oddest part to me is how you consistently overlook disability, as a category that’s been discriminated against.

        Isn’t Will’s re-election a reason to celebrate, given your views?

        If it comes down to a “contest” between someone with a disability, vs. someone of color (especially a “preferred” color), how does someone like you make a choice?

        And we won’t even get into sexual orientation, as another “qualifying” factor.

        1. Ron Oertel

          What you seem to be advocating for is not unlike what Cindy advocated for, in some ways.

          You don’t like the result (even though you supported the systemic change), because your guy wasn’t elected.  So now, you’d prefer to go back to the way it was.

          But if you were truly concerned about elevating a person who is a part of a historically-discriminated group, you’d be happy that Will was re-elected.

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            I don’t know who my guy was. But I pointed out in August there was only one candidate of color on the ballot for city council.

            In the end, you really don’t understand where this is coming from and so you are guessing and most of the time, guessing wrong.

  6. Richard McCann

    We should just wait until the Santa Monica situation is clarified. I’m sure the Supreme Court knows that it has a looming 2022 deadline, or even sooner with redistricting.

    Rank choice voting is the better alternative anyway.

    1. Bill Marshall

      A wise person once said, “To every solution, there is a problem…”

      At-large elections, 5 members has limitations… 5 members by district, has limitations… 5 members by distict, 2 at large would have its limitations (7 total)… rank choice voting (@ 5 or 7) would have its limitations…

      There is no panacea, no magic wands, to have ‘appropriate’ representation be all things, to all folks’ “druthers”… called ‘reality’…

      Guess we could have a designated, POC member requirement, gender requirement, ‘orientation’ requirement, college student requirement… for candicacy for individual “places at the table/dais”…  and/or ban all white hetero males from candicacy, at least until “proper diversity” was achieved… I suspect that would have limitations, too, including constitutional ones…

      But we can theoretically change the constitution, and City status as a charter city…

      1. Bill Marshall

        Or… we could make it clear that all electeds be expected to represent all the people, all the time… not just “their base”, and be sensitive to the diversity of the community, individual concerns/needs… not just their ‘group’… what a concept… might actually work… not too many limitations on that ‘model’…

        1. Eric Gelber

          So, you’d be OK going back to the days of all white male city councils, school boards state legislatures, etc. as long as it was made that they were expected to represent all the people—including those with vastly different perspectives, priorities, and experiences than theirs?

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            1971, Joan Poulos was elected in 1972 and there has been at least one woman on the council ever since.

        2. Bill Marshall

          To Don, I’d add, DJUSD Board of Trustees, CA legislature (either house)…

          Your comments re: me were offensive, and untrue, to say the least… I deleted my riposte…

        3. Eric Gelber

          When was the last time Davis had an all white male city council?

          I wasn’t necessarily referring to Davis. I was speaking more broadly to the implications of Bill’s suggested solution.

        4. Eric Gelber

          By the way, the California State Senate didn’t have a woman member until 1976. And only 57 women have ever served in the U. S. Senate. We’re not talking ancient history here.

        5. Richard McCann

          Bill M

          It’s not about “representing” all people. Rather its about having has full a breadth of experiences in our society that can give voices that must be listened to in the deliberative process. In any government process, one needs some type of leverage to really be heard. Just chanting in the streets is meaningless if that can’t be translated into actual votes and decisions. All democracies have always had representatives who have represented there particular blocks of voters. It’s naive to think that this will change in any meaningful way. How would you plan to enforce your requirement?

  7. Alan Miller

    Changing My Mind on District Elections

    When I read this headline, my first thought was:  “What’s the matter, DG, didn’t like the fact that the outcome this time was three white men?”  I start reading and was zapped when the first sentence of the second paragraph confirmed:

    What ended up happening was the election of three white males to council.

    A single election doesn’t show whether the system is working or not.  I strongly suspect in this particular election the outcome would have ended up with the same people on the Council where there no district elections.

    If that was going to be the outcome of district elections, we would be better off with at-large elections.

    Again, a really simplistic statement due to the fact we are talking about a single election.  That’s like declaring that climate change is real because it was hot in Davis last summer.  (Note I am not arguing climate change here, but I’ve heard people make that statement.  So don’t start.)

    In a city like Woodland, where there are enclaves of Latino voters, creating districts made it far more likely that Latinos could run in fairly small districts and have the vote-share to get elected.  In Davis, it appears that districts worked in the opposite manner.  You could not get to a majority of voters in a district who were people of color . . .

    I somewhat agree with this, though not for your reasons more focused on race.  I think districts make sense in cities like Oakland where different areas of the city have specific needs, and some of this involves enclaves with racial majorities.  This doesn’t make so much sense in Davis.  I had a in-depth discussion with Kelsey Fortune on this topic.  I don’t want to mis-characterize someone else’s views, especially a potential candidate for future office, though I’d say she agrees.  (feel free to chime in KF).

    How to improve things does need to be looked into, but the devil remains in the district concept itself.  I am not OK going to seven districts and entrenching this mistake further – I think the current districts are very well drawn, i.e. we have the best devil, given that we have a devil.

    What bothers me most is the idea that the outcome is fueling the process.  Process is most important – no matter your goal.  This piece reeks of the same issue with the school board where action was taken because of the outcome (a white person).  The stated goals of the group that formed are actually in line with my views as to how to best move towards equity and diversity — encourage and support persons in target groups to run in local elections.

    These are similar to my beliefs on so-called affirmative action.  I do not believe in quotas or admissions based on race, sex, etc.  Rather, groups that do not perform well historically should have resources directed to help them better compete — and yes, this includes spending large quantities of taxpayer money in the effort.  This should also include further seeking to identify and eliminate bias in the admissions process – i.e., does the process favor white or Asian people by how, for instance, test questions are worded, rather than on ability.

    However, when the discussion on the school board selection was active, a couple of people focused on the race of the person chosen, and that person was quickly bounced.  That was the türd in the punch bowl for me.  Because the focus was not on improving the process, but on the outcome itself.

    When I read analyses of the loss of the so-called affirmative action initiative in California, most articles have focused on how this result shows how racist California actually is.  These pieces completely miss that many of us see the same need, but see the initiative’s solution as flawed and see a different approach.  I suspect this is much more the reason for the initiative’s loss, rather than “California is really racist”.  Also, many of us older folks lived through the initial round of affirmative action after the civil rights movement, in the 1960’s-70’s-80’s, and saw the flaws in this approach.

  8. Chris Jerdonek

    I have suggested a council subcommittee be appointed to look into options, though the council people I have spoken to so far have not been that receptive.

    The city council already created a Davis Governance Task Force in 2004 to look into how the city can best ensure fair representation. Their final recommendation was that the city should adopt choice voting (aka at-large ranked choice voting). They did this because choice voting ensures minority representation even when those groups are geographically dispersed. It would precisely address the issue Davis is facing today and has faced in the past.

    The task force’s recommendation was never adopted though. The city supported choice voting 55% to 45% in an advisory measure in 2006 (Measure L), but there was never a binding vote.

    (I uploaded a copy of the task force’s report here, because it doesn’t seem to be on the city’s website anymore.)

    Fundamentally, districts can’t help in the representation of groups that are geographically dispersed. So instead of digging deeper into districts, I’d suggest the city look into choice voting again.

    There are at least two possibilities forward. First, the city could adopt a narrowly-construed charter (one whose only purpose is to enable choice voting). In my opinion, the mistake in 2008 was trying to adopt a broad charter that wasn’t focused on choice voting. (The Davis Vanguard seems to agree.)

    Second, the city could pass a state bill that would let Davis alone use choice voting. The legislature already passed a bill last year (2019-20 SB 212) that would have done much more by letting every general law city and county use ranked choice voting, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Newsom. In his veto message, Newsom said he wants the state to “learn more” before broadly expanding the system. So there’s a good chance that letting one more city like Davis use it should be acceptable to him.

    Lastly, one other development since 2005 is that Davis would no longer be the first jurisdiction in California to adopt ranked choice voting in a multi-winner setting. The city of Albany, CA just passed multi-winner RCV with a 73% vote.

     

    1. Bill Marshall

      They did this because choice voting ensures minority representation even when those groups are geographically dispersed.

      Untrue… not in evidence… if I’m wrong, please cite reputable cite… From experience, ‘old’ at large voting did same… when 3 CC seats were up for grabs… two notable ones… Debbie Nichols Poulos, and Julie Partansky…Debbie and Julie were folks’ third pick… both ended up with most votes… one was denied ever being Mayor, the other became Mayor… district elections actually minimize de facto ‘choice voting’… and demonstrably, choice voting is not happening until a “majority” goes from General Law City to Charter City… maybe even odds…

      We’ll see, but don’t hold your breath… might require medical intervention…

      I actually support Charter City status… lived in one for 21 years… but am also a realist… not likely in next 20 years… for Davis… enables not just rank voting, but also property taxes, and local income taxes…

        1. Don Shor

          … property TRANSFER taxes…

          Yep. General law cities are set at .55 per $1000 of property value for a property transfer tax. Charter cities range up to $13.00 per $1000 of property value (Piedmont) and higher on a sliding scale in Oakland and Berkeley. That’s just the city rate. There is still an additional .55 to $1.10 per $1000 to the county in each of those jurisdictions.

      1. Chris Jerdonek

        Untrue… not in evidence… if I’m wrong, please cite reputable cite… From experience, ‘old’ at large voting did same

        Here is one academic source: Douglas Amy, “The Forgotten History of the Single Transferable Vote in the United States.” Representation 34, no. 1 (1996): 13–20.

        While the paper doesn’t seem to be readily available on the web (might be paywalled), a later version can be found here. Here is an excerpt from it, but I encourage you to read the later version in full:

        Proportional representation also encouraged fairer racial and ethnic representation. It produced the first Irish Catholics elected in Ashtabula, and the first Polish-Americans elected in Toledo. In Cincinnati, Hamilton, and Toledo, African-Americans had never been able to win city office until the coming of PR. Significantly, after these cities abandoned PR, African-Americans again found it almost impossible to get elected.

        Note that the “proportional representation” it’s referring to is the same as choice voting (which you can see in the first paragraph, and also that the single transferable vote is its more technical name).

        And yes, while Davis’s old plurality at-large system can result in diversity, it’s not guaranteed. With choice voting / STV, it’s built into the system because the percent threshold to win goes down as the number of people to elect goes up (e.g. 25% to win in the case of electing three people), and it also prevents things like vote splitting.

         

        1. Alan Miller

          and it also prevents things like vote splitting.

          That’s my main driver for choice voting.  Majority vote is “simple”, but doesn’t actually make sense mathmatically due to vote splitting.  It’s much more complex than that, but essentially what choice voting allows is you can vote for whom you want to vote for without throwing out your vote, or worse, increasing the likelihood of getting the person you want the least elected.  This then ends the stupid American practices of 1) strategic voting, and 2) voting for the lesser of two evils.  It will take awhile, but as people see they can vote for who they want instead of against who they don’t want, viable third parties will emerge, and eventually have a shot at power.

    2. Alan Miller

      Chris, WOW!

      That is like the most awesome writeup about ranked-choice voting EVER!  There’s stuff in there from for Davis with history before I’d even heard of the concept.  Of course Newsom voted it down — partisan scümbag — it threatens the Democratic supermajority.  It’s all about power.

      Rank-Choice voting is my #1 Mission from God – my fight, my struggle.  I have recently met others who wish to take this on – from all over the political map.  My dream is to see rank-choice voting for California elections before I die.

      Please get ahold of me (I think you have my email?) if you would like to start a movement to turn Davis to rank-choice voting.  Last time we tried we ran into the “but if we turn Davis into a Charter City, all sorts of terrible things might happen”  excuse/fear/reason.  If we start now, we could have a movement and start holding rallies when the pandemic breaks.

      What do we want?  RANK CHOICE VOTING!

      When do we want it?  BEFORE ALAN MILLER DIES!

      Say What!?  LONG BEFORE ALAN MILLER DIES!

      Is that better, Alan?  MUCH BETTER!

      1. Chris Jerdonek

        That is like the most awesome writeup about ranked-choice voting EVER! … Please get ahold of me (I think you have my email?) if you would like to start a movement to turn Davis to rank-choice voting.

        Thanks for the kind words. That’s something I already tried doing starting around 2000 when I lived in Davis. (I now live in San Francisco.) I was an integral part of the chain of events that led to Davis voting on Measure L in 2006. You can also see that the Task Force mentioned my name on page ii of their report which I linked to above.

        If you want to help advance RCV, I’d suggest getting on the mailing lists of both FairVote and Californians for Electoral Reform. RepresentUs is another group you connect with that has been doing a lot on ranked choice voting.

         

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