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San Diego Cities Are Switching To District Elections To Increase Diversity — But Is It Working?

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Most cities switched in the last few years to avoid lawsuits brought under the California Voting Rights Act that allege those cities are under-representing minorities.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 Cities up and down the state are making changes to how they conduct local elections. Often prompted by lawsuits backed by the California Voting Rights Act Council members in all but five cities in San Diego county are now being elected by district instead of in city wide elections. The point is to increase diversity on city councils by giving minority populations a chance to elect someone who represents just their area. KPBS reporter Claire Treg us or talked with Douglas Johnson who runs a company called National Demographics Corporation that helps cities plan out who votes for which candidate. She started by asking if the change to district elections is making a difference in the diversity of the councils.

Speaker 2: 00:43 In most of them we've only had one election and the the districts work either two or three of the districts have an election one year and then the other two or three have an election in the next year or so. Roughly half of the districts have held an election and we haven't seen a big switch. I haven't gone back to vista which switched earlier than the others. I think that did increase the number looking nose there, but in pal may and in most of these cities we're not seeing any changes. Is that it's too soon to tell or we'll see how. It will be interesting to see how much change there is. We did a little look at the jurisdictions that switched in 2016 in 2017 when we went back because statewide there were 16 cities that have their first election in 2016 in 2018 there were about 80 so we have not been able to go back through all of them yet. Part of the challenges is that there were a few elections, there are more uncontested races when you have districts and so when we go back to look, there may have been an election, but it was uncontested so it's not in the registrar's reports and so we have to go through city by city and figure out all the details and that takes a lot of time.

Speaker 3: 01:50 Are there any trends that you're seeing across the state in terms of these switches and whether they're having any impact or not?

Speaker 2: 01:58 It's still somewhat anecdotal, but the jurisdictions where Maldef Racio you came in or a group like that, um, we do tend to see changes. The big one I was talking about his Mercy Ed. Um, if they didn't get a California button where it's like the letter, they almost certainly would have gotten a federal voter and sec letter. Uh, they literally are separate and half by a railroad and all the council members had always been north of the railroad, the heavily white area and half the population of south. So they split and elected three Latinos in the first election. So definitely we're seeing these kind of traditional voting rights situations where it makes a difference without a doubt. Then we have jurisdictions like Poway where citywide, the city was about 12% Latino and the most Latino district we could draw was up 15%. Well 12 to 15, you know, that's a margin of error change because probably doesn't have a heavily Latino neighborhood where we could draw a concert you'd seat so that green districts was never going to make a big difference in the representation or empower any traditionally underrepresented area. So we see unfortunately more of those. But that's not to ignore the fact that there are the Mercedes out there. Yeah.

Speaker 3: 03:10 So it sounds like for switching to district elections to make a difference, the city needs to have some diversity in in the first place. Maybe

Speaker 2: 03:20 interestingly, it actually needs to be, yes, diverse but a pocket. It has to be kind of geographically concentrated. So what we see in places like Encinitas, like Poway is diverse populations, but without the traditional housing segregation that historically has been the pattern in California. And so when we draw districts, we can't draw a concentrated African American or Latino or Asian American seat. And that's what's really needed is both a diverse population but still somewhat housing segregated. So that with a lock off geographically concentrated populations can be drawn into a district.

Speaker 3: 03:57 Are there other factors that determine, you know, whether making the switch to district elections will make it more successful in increasing diversity?

Speaker 2: 04:08 A big part of it is if the push comes from the local community. One of the things that's often forgotten by kind of the gadfly types at these district meetings is that districts, you just the first step, you still didn't have to win the election. So for example, in Modesto, which had a multimillion dollar lawsuit, $5 million spent on both sides in this lawsuit, the court ordered in a district map and know Latina ran, well one ran, but he was just out of the navy and he, he had a myspace page. There was half. Why low Sandra Bullock movies and half why I'm running for city council, no grass roots community, you know, candidate ran the one who are thought we'd run and forgot to file a, he missed the deadline. So it is very much needing to be know local activists, grassroots folks who will both push for districts and carry that forward into the campaign.

Speaker 2: 05:02 Kind of like what we saw in Anaheim, Anaheim, you had uh, a very grassroots movement that pushed very hard for districts, got districts and then transition right in the campaign. And those folks became the volunteers and the candidate when we're getting these kind of like on carpet bomb. The letters coming in and just hitting every, every letter. There's no grass roots, there's no community involvement. Sometimes a little bit springs up around the issue, but not enough to run a campaign on. And that's where we kind of see the falling down of even if you get a stronger Latino seat, you still don't have the campaign based, the volunteers, the candidate and the network.

Speaker 3: 05:39 Can we consider a couple other local examples including Elica home? Can you, can you talk about what happened when they switched?

Speaker 2: 05:47 Yeah. El Cahone was kind of a fascinating process because it's really a community, uh, spring in the Middle Eastern community really just starting to, they were very effective. They actually didn't get the math they wanted, but they got a map that was still very friendly to the community. And I'll be curious to see affection, not getting the math they really wanted, fires them up even more and carries that momentum into the campaigns. Um, El Cahone has that odd structure where there's one district of one year and three districts up the other year, and then the mayor's, uh, separate at large. So there one district wasn't the Middle Eastern area in 2020 it will be when the test really comes for if that grassroots activism turns into campaign activism and all the signs are that it will just the fact that it was not one or two people claiming to speak for the community.

Speaker 2: 06:42 It was, you know, 60 or 80 people from the community showing up. Um, you know, translator's translating for folks that were new immigrants that didn't speak English, um, and the sophistication and their pitches actually drawing a map, getting it. So it was a legal map and having a series of presenters presented and they focus a lot on what were the community centers. You know, they didn't talk about candidates and no one ever does and these presentations, but all signs are that they have thought that through and, and a half in mind, probably multiple candidates who will run for that seat or this layering of shots at two seats and the map that ultimately got adopted. And what about a Escondido? Can you talk about that example as well? Yeah, that was kind of a wild one. Uh, in making their transition. They were before we had the rules that we have now we have the California Voting Rights Act, but not what we call ab three 50, which created this, send a letter, hold five hearings process.

Speaker 2: 07:44 So back then there was a lawsuit, a settlement, the creation of this somewhat unusual independent commission. They had adopted a map and then the map didn't work. You know, if you look at the precinct election results, the Latino candidate won every precinct in that district except one. But the incumbent, Mr Gallow one that one precinct by such a huge margin that he overcame his loss and all the other precincts. That's not what we tried to do our map. So we'll do that one precinct should not have been in there. Then we saw this year in Escondido where the challenges presented by how the map was drawn. We're overwhelmed by the, by the general wave, a democratic wave and, and in Escondido Latino wave that propel ability now in that seat. So we'd showed both the districts by themselves are not always the, the, the complete answer and that we have to be careful how we draw those districts as well.

Speaker 1: 08:44 That was Douglas Johnson, who runs a company called National Demographics Corporation speaking to Kpbs reporter Claire Traeger. Sir.

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KPBS Midday Edition is a daily talk show hosted by Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon, keeping San Diegans in the know on everything from politics to the arts.