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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