District Elections Could Mean A New Crop Of Candidates In November 2020
Across San Diego County, there's a push to find and draft local city council candidates, especially candidates that come from minority communities.
The drive comes from a recent change to local elections. In all but five cities in San Diego County, council members are now elected by district instead of in city-wide votes. The change came recently for most cities, and it was meant to increase racial diversity on city councils by allowing minority communities to elect someone from their neighborhood.
But a KPBS analysis found that so far, that hasn't happened in all 10 cities that have held district elections. Five of them saw no change in their racial makeup, and three of those city councils remain all white.
But it's too soon to say that district elections do not help increase diversity. That's because in all five of those cities that have seen no change — El Cajon, Vista, Encinitas, Poway and Santee — the first district election was only last year.
The cities may need more time and more elections to diversify. All five cities will have their next chance in 2020.
The push in El Cajon
One early evening on the busy Main Street in El Cajon, a group of men were sitting around playing checkers and cards in a Middle Eastern restaurant.
In a small storage room behind the restaurant, a group is gathered, but they were not playing games. They spread bus maps out on the table and spoke in Arabic about what they wanted to see in the city's climate action plan.
Mohammed Tuama, who ran the meeting, moved from Iraq to El Cajon 10 years ago and now is very involved in local politics. He said the switch to district elections got others from the Middle Eastern community involved in the "districting" process.
"It was an achievement for us, from a community that was not involved to a community that is actually involved," he said.
Now, Tuama and others are preparing for the November 2020 election. That's when his district, which contains a large chunk of the Middle Eastern community, will get to vote on their first council member.
"We're welcoming anyone who, even if not from our community, someone who cares," he said. "But we're looking for someone from our community."
Tuama said he doesn't plan to run — he's better as a community organizer, he said—but he and others from his community are narrowing in on a candidate.
"We have someone but we're trying to see if that person can be more involved," he said. "Because it's not only about someone from our community, but we need someone really knowledgeable."
Depending on the party of the person they choose, they may have some help in the election.
Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, the chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, said district elections are "a game changer in many of the smaller cities."
District elections not only increase diversity, they also largely help Democrats, he said.
"Moving to district elections is more representative, it also means that communities of color and other marginalized communities will have more of a vote share in terms of their districts, which is obviously better for everyone, but also better for the Democratic Party," he said.
Although all local city council seats are nonpartisan, Rodriguez-Kennedy said in reality, it doesn't usually play out that way. And, he said, part of the Democratic Party's strategy will be focusing on these smaller cities in the next election.
He hopes that will gain the Democrats more seats on the local transit agency SANDAG.
"It requires the Democratic Party to pay attention to the seats that contribute to SANDAG, which means we need to start paying attention and investing in smaller cities in the north and the east," he said.
Racially polarized voting
The assumption that minority voters vote as a block is often true, though not always, said Zoltan Hajnal, a political science professor at UC San Diego. He called this racially polarized voting.
"African-Americans are in many ways the most polarized voting block, they tend to vote overwhelmingly liberal, Democratic, whereas whites tend to vote more Republican and conservative," Hajnal said. "There's often a smaller gap between the preferences of Latinos and Asian-Americans on one hand and white American preferences in terms of the vote."
It's also often true that minority groups are more likely to vote for Democrats, he said.
"Republicans who are Latino or African-American or Asian-American typically get very few black or Latino or Asian-American votes," he said. "So there are some racialized patterns, but there are also partisan and ideological patterns as well."
If district maps are drawn where minorities are too concentrated in one or two districts, it may actually limit the chance to elect even more diverse councils, he said.
"Essentially those districts will be the overwhelmingly liberal districts and then you'll elect more conservative Republicans," he said.
But in El Cajon, Mohammed Tuama's focus is getting just one person from his community elected.
There are some projects he wants to see tackled. For example, making El Cajon more walkable and using more roundabouts, which people from the Middle East are used to, he said.
"Back home we all have roundabouts because it keeps cars moving and that reduces gas emissions," he said. "It was complicated for the local community to accept roundabouts because they never drove in a roundabout, so we had to show a video of how they actually work."
If they had a council person from the Middle East, they wouldn't have to explain, he said. That person would just understand what they were talking about.