Thursday, June 14, 2012
Facing a voting-rights lawsuit, the Escondido City Council will ask voters decide whether to implement district elections, which could help more Latinos get elected.
SAN DIEGO Voters in Escondido will decide whether to toss out the system they currently use to elect members of the City Council. A new system could help more Latinos get elected.
Under the current system, every voter in the city chooses from the same slate of candidates, and the top vote-getters win.
But on Wednesday the City Council agreed to let voters decide whether to switch to district elections, in which the city is split into zones, and residents of those zones elect someone who lives there. That makes it easier for ethnic minorities like Latinos to elect candidates from their communities.
Half of Escondido’s population is now Latino. But only two Latinos have ever been elected to the City Council, only one of whom -- current councilwoman Olga Diaz -- acknowledged being Latina.
In December, several Latinos sued the city under the powerful California Voting Rights Act to try to force district elections. Mayor Sam Abed vowed to fight that effort. But in the face of the lawsuit, he and his three conservative colleagues on the five-member council have written district elections into a new city charter that they want voters to approve in November. The charter would also allow the city to pay lower wages for construction contracts.
Within the charter, the City Council also stipulated that if the California Voting Rights Act is ever ruled invalid, the council reserves the right to eliminate district elections.
Diaz voted against putting the charter on the ballot.
Now that the charter's approval would also implement district elections, there was immediate concern from voting rights advocates that the council’s proposal won’t go far enough to ensure fair elections.
Lori Shellenberger, an attorney with the ACLU, urged the council to also include in the charter an independent commission that would draw the new districts, as opposed to leaving that job to the City Council.
“What historically happens is people are motivated by self interest and you have what’s called political gerrymandering, meaning they draw the boundaries to preserve their own power,” she said.
The state of California and some counties and cities, including San Diego, use an independent commission. But on Wednesday the Escondido City Council did not include that in the charter proposal.
Voters will decide on the charter in November's general election. Even if it's rejected, the voting rights lawsuit could be revived, and a court order could still force the city to implement district elections.