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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

District Elections Supposed To Increase Diversity; So Far, San Diego Results Are Mixed

Speaker 1: 00:02 As you heard earlier in the show, the u s supreme court has decided not to decide on the constitutionality of gerrymandering election districts, but California is very much involved in creating local voting districts that bring as much diversity into government as possible. All but five cities in San Diego County have switched to district elections where voters choose their own district council member instead of having the entire population vote on all the council members. That change is aimed at increasing diversity in city leadership. KPBS investigative reporter Claire Treg is her found. That hasn't always happened. Speaker 2: 00:42 Yeah. Congratulations. I'm so clay did. So when is the due date? Okay. Early November, Escondido City Council woman. Consuelo Martinez is making the rounds in a busy neighborhood park. It won't be hot then. It'll be nice. No, it's tough to get through. The whole summer he chats with a young couple eating ice cream then stops by a group gathered at picnic tables for a birthday party. She can't walk a few feet without running into someone she knows. Yeah. I don't talk about perfect timing. I'm like, I always run into people at the park and that's the point of council districts to have someone like Martin. Tina's represent her neighbors. Escondido used to elect its council members citywide, but in 2014 the city drew a district map and created one district that had a very slight majority of Latinos. Four years later, Martinez was elected in that district, but she wouldn't have run without district elections because campaigning citywide was too expensive. The representatives would be spread out and therefore you would have attention high. You would have attention being given throughout the city. In her first six months in office, Martinez moved to city council meetings to 6:00 PM, so working people can attend and got a water treatment plant slated for her district. Moved to an industrial area. One of her constituents, daisies, Evolla says Martinez makes her feel like she's being heard Speaker 3: 02:08 now that there's someone in office that like understands like the struggle of like a um, being born in minority and like being raised as a minority. Like I feel like she just has like a better input. Speaker 2: 02:20 Before Escondido had council districts. There was one Latina on the city council and three white men. Now there are two Latinas and a democratic majority, but in other cities, switching to district elections has an increased diversity. KPBS did an analysis that found five of the 10 cities that switched to district elections and have had elections have not seen increased diversity. Three of those councils are all white. Another four cities have boosted their Latino representation and Carlsbad now has one non white representative for district elections. To increase diversity, you need certain criteria, including that the city actually draws districts that have a significant minority population. That's according to Douglas Johnson, the president of National Demographics Corporation, which helps cities draw district maps. Speaker 4: 03:17 It actually needs to be, yes, diverse, but a pocket. It has to be kind of geographically concentrated Speaker 2: 03:22 and even if you have districts and minority candidates run, you still then have to win the election. That means you need a viable minority candidate. Johnson says Modesto finally drew districts after a long legal battle Speaker 4: 03:36 and no Latina ran. Well, one ran, but he had a myspace page that was half. Why? I love Sandra Bullock movies and half. Why I'm running for city council. We're over 50% Hispanic and that's good deed on. Now, what type of businesses are you going to get? Speaker 2: 03:52 Ed Gallo stands in a busy shopping center in Escondido that's filled with Mexican restaurants and a market catering to Latinos. This used to be his district. He lost last year to Consuelo Martinez, but he says other minority candidates such as council woman, Olga Diaz were able to win seats in city wide votes. Speaker 4: 04:12 How did that happen? I can tell you how it happened. She worked hard again because that's what it takes. Speaker 2: 04:18 He worries. Having Council members represent individual districts means they won't be looking out for the good of the city. Speaker 4: 04:25 You're involved in the entire city and every decision you make doesn't just involve people in your additionally get involved. Everybody in the city Speaker 1: 04:32 making sure that uh, the east part of Escondido is not forgotten, was very, it's very, it's still very important to me. It can swell. Consuelo Martinez says her role is to look out specifically for her district. She says before she was elected, no one was doing that. Joining me now is KPBS investigative reporter Claire Traeger, Sir and Claire, welcome. Thank you. Now some of the cities that have switched to district elections have done so only after they were threatened with a lawsuit over voting rights. Tell us more about that. Speaker 2: 05:02 Great. So, so most of the cities that switched locally and really actually across the state did so because of lawsuits either from the ACLU and the Mexican American legal defense and Education Fund. They've threatened to sue some cities under the California Voting Rights Act for not having elected bodies that represent the diversity of their cities. So district elections, those lawsuits argue would really increase diversity on city councils by giving minority populations a chance to elect someone who represents just they're part of the city. But then there are other lawsuits that have been brought by Kevin Shankman, who's a Malibu lawyer who has been suing cities up and down the state and earning millions in legal costs when he wins, we should add. And I actually, I talked to him and he said that so far the results on whether forcing cities to switch to district elections, whether that's actually increased diversity, the results on that have been mixed. Speaker 2: 06:01 So he said he actually hadn't anticipated all of the obstacles to increasing diversity such as the cities actually need good district maps, um, maybe more organization among the minority communities in, of course they actually need viable candidates to, to run. But he said that he felt like even switching to district elections has kind of boosted that community grassroots organization in some places. Now, besides ethnicity, there are other kinds of diversity. Do the lawsuits address them? No, they don't. The lawsuits are just focused on ethnicity, but it's interesting because yeah, there is a lot of diversity. For example, the San Diego City Council, it switched to districts way back in 1988 but now, you know, it has five white council members, one Asian, one African American and two Latina. But it also has a big diversity of religions, um, people from the LGBTQ community age range, uh, lots of things, but those aren't reflected in the lawsuit. Speaker 2: 07:03 Okay. So do all cities of a certain size need to hold district elections? No, not necessarily. They just have to abide by the California Voting Rights Act. And that says that cities can't have an election system that prevents minority groups from electing candidates of their choice. So a court can find that holding the citywide vote keeps minority communities from electing someone to represent them, but they also could find a district system if the districts aren't drawn correctly to create maybe a district that has a majority of minorities in it. They could also find that that violates the California Voting Rights Act. But so far any city that has tried to resist switching to district elections in court, no city has one. Um, and if courts find against the city, they have to change their election system and pay those legal fees. Um, so now cities don't really even try in court. Speaker 2: 07:58 You know, you spoke with several constituents in Escondido that we heard from. They're very grateful for the change to district elections, but what if any, are the downsides to district elections? Sure. I mean, first of all, it may not work. Um, if the city doesn't draw a map that actually creates districts with a majority of minorities, they may not be able to elect a minority candidate. Though again, they can be sued if they don't draw a map that way. And then as I mentioned in the story, you need viable candidates to actually run viable candidates from the minority community. And, and then some argue that districts may mean that city council members are really only focused on their own district and won't care as much about the good of the city as a whole. And there's an argument that if maps are drawn where minorities are too concentrated in maybe one or two districts, it could actually in the long term limit the chances to elect even more diverse city councils. As you know, the minority community might grow in that, in that city. Speaker 1: 09:00 That's a good point that you make about the candidates emerging because I remember when the city of San Diego created district nine, which is a majority minority district, only one minority candidate emerged during that first election cycle and the white candidate won by a landslide. Can it take a while for a community to fight itself politically after this kind of a change? Speaker 2: 09:22 Yes, definitely. I think using even that example by the next election in district nine there were several, I think actually all the candidates in San Diego city council, district nine were Latino and obviously now Georgia Gomez who represents the ditch district is Latino, so it can just take time for communities to maybe build a good grassroots organization and field candidates and help them win. Even in Escondido, which I focused on in this story, Consuelo Martinez, she first ran in 2014 in the first time that there was a district and she lost narrowly and then four years later she had more money, more organization. There was also a big blue wave overall in her city and then she won. So I'm in tomorrow story, I'll focus on El Cahone, which switched to district elections in 2018 but they haven't really had a chance yet for those districts with sites, significant minority populations to vote Speaker 1: 10:18 and that's tomorrow coming up in part two of your district elections feature. Thanks Claire, so much for talking with us. Thank you.

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Since 2012, all but five cities in San Diego County have switched to district elections for their city councils with the intention of increasing diversity. But so far, that hasn't always happened.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments