Monday Morning Thoughts: Should the City Take a Chance and Roll Back to At-Large Elections?

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – Davis is going to have a special election in May and is likely now to operate with just four councilmembers, including no one from District 3 until the election is certified and the newly-elected member is sworn-in in June.

This is an unanticipated downside of district elections, where members of the council elected to another district were hesitant to appoint someone from a different district for a nearly two-year period.

One of the comments on Tuesday is that no one in Davis actually supports the district elections.  It was imposed on Davis, it appears, from Attorney Matt Rexroad who lives in Woodland and who appeared to be hired by College Republicans who have likely long since moved on from college.

Many have been eying the case out of Santa Monica where, in 2020, the Second DCA held unanimously that the city’s at-large elections do not violate California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).

The plaintiffs in the case have argued that the city’s at-large elections prevent Latinos from influencing local elections and diluted their voting power.

A key to that ruling is a five part test: (1) Membership in a protected class. (2) Residence in the public agency they are suing. (3) The public agency uses an at-large method of election. (4) Racially polarized voting has occurred. (5) Dilution has occurred.

The 2nd DCA focused on whether dilution occurred.

The appellate court explained dilution as “the act of making something weaker by mixing in something else.”

The appellate court continued, saying “this familiar concept applies to electoral results. Many techniques can manipulate a voting system to dilute the ability of particular groups to achieve electoral success.”

The appellate ruled that the plaintiffs failed in that “the City’s at-large elections diluted the votes of Latinos.”

When the letter was presented to Davis City Council, the city’s analysis was that cities spend a ton of money in fighting these and have never won.  If they lose, they would lose some control over the process as well.

Santa Monica changes that calculation and might give Davis a path forward to reverse itself—if it so chooses.

I was initially supportive of going to district elections, seeing it as a better avenue to gain representation of people of color as well as student representation.  But what we saw when we actually looked at least at what five districts looked like, there really were no districts that were going to be minority-majority.

Further unless you go to seven or nine districts, it is hard to imagine a student majority district either.

One of the key criteria for a CVRA claim is that they must show residence in the agency they are suing.  That means, in order to sue, you would have to someone in the city limits willing to litigate.  After experiencing district elections in fact rather than theory, that is much less likely to occur.  Most of the original potential litigants have moved on.

Moreover, if the Santa Monica decision holds, it would be easy to argue that the same for Davis.

Dilution does not appear to occur in Davis either, as the city is relatively evenly distributed by race.  Yes, people of color did prevail in two districts last election, but the previous method at times also produced two people of color—Brett Lee and Gloria Partida.

There is no natural constituency to support the move locally.  Gloria Partida was always—rightly—concerned that having single member winner take all districts would make it more, not less, difficult for people of color to win.

The slow growth community also appears opposed to district elections.  Single member districts make it difficult for their candidates to compete, which is why in one full round of district elections, not one slow growther came close to winning.  Their best chance is in a top 3 election where there are numerous candidates competing.

So, unless an outsider wants to recruit some students to make trouble, it is probably unlikely that someone would actually challenge the city in court.

And even if they do, it appears there is as at least a decent chance the city could prevail.

For instance, in Santa Monica, “The appellate court reasoned that the City’s Latino population was not sufficiently large enough to constitute a statistical majority in any potential trustee area. The appellate court concluded that, at most, Latinos would constitute 30 percent of any particular trustee area.”

And, “30 percent is not enough to win a majority and to elect someone to the City Council, even in a district system.”

Further, “The reason for the asserted lack of electoral success in Santa Monica would appear to be that there are too few Latinos to muster a majority, no matter how the City might slice itself.”

The city would undoubtedly feel better if the state Supreme Court stamps its approval either by allowing the 2nd DCA decision to stand or by affirming it, itself.

But having poured through the math in Davis, the numbers are actually a lot worse than Santa Monica in terms of district elections automatically generating minority representation.

In short, the city could reverse itself and potentially not face any sort of legal challenge and, if they do, they have a good chance now of actually succeeding.

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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1 Comment

  1. Dave Hart

    Before and after district elections, I was mildly opposed.  I am now more concerned about the negatives of districts.  I hear on Nextdoor (admittedly a place where some whacked out opinions are aired) too much of “my district” and that is the problem.  The smaller an elected council members’ constituency, the more tailored is the message and response.  This absolutely goes against the responsibility of a council member to represent the entire city regardless of the district boundary.  District elections make more sense in very large cities like Sacramento where there are neighborhoods with distinct demographics or in cities that have a large number of council members.  The dynamics change as cities spread out.  But just on the basis of the court decision, it appears they are looking at the actual intent of the law.  On that score, Davis just doesn’t qualify as benefiting due to demographic distributions.  So there are definite downsides (district myopia) and no benefits.  I say repeal this and let Rexroad risk his own money this time.

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