Local district elections open doors for minorities in LA County cities
In November 2018, Costa Mesa made history when voters for the first time elected a Latino to the City Council. In fact, three Latinos were catapulted to victory on the seven-member panel in that landmark election.
But it wasn’t an overnight, dramatic shift in demographics that shook up the political landscape in Orange County’s eighth largest city, which is two-thirds White. Rather, it was a change in how voting is conducted, and reflected a movement that has been coursing through California since 2014.
Like many cities across the state, Costa Mesa in 2016 transitioned from an at-large election system, where voters citywide decide every council race, to a system in which the city is divided into geographic areas and only voters in those districts decide their council representatives.
“I don’t think I would have been able to run for council if not for by-district elections,” said Manuel Chavez, who was 23 years old when he was elected along with Arlis Reynolds and Andrea Marr. Chavez, an underwriter and community activist. said he was able knock on every door and make contact with nearly all of the 2,644 voters of his district, where more than 70% of the population is Latino.
“That would be impossible in an at-large election,” Chavez said.
Costa Mesa is one of dozens of cities across Southern California and more than 150 statewide that have shifted to district elections amid a growing push by attorneys, voting rights groups and civil rights activists demanding an equal playing field for minorities in the election of city council, school board and community college district board members.
Their legal weapon has been the California Voting Rights Act, a 2002 law that made it easier for minority groups to prove they are disenfranchised by at-large elections.
Since 2014, 151 cities across California have shifted from at-large to district elections, and 39 cities — 16 in Southern California — have held or will hold their first district elections in 2020. And even more are set to hold their first-ever district elections in 2022.
The results have been a mixed bag. Some experts believe district elections account for as much as a 21% increase in minority representation in cities with high-density Latino pockets. They describe the move to district elections as a “quiet revolution in local government.” Others, however, argue that district elections have had little impact on the demographic makeup of many city councils.
Making the change
Anaheim, Garden Grove, Corona, Highland, and Palmdale are among other Southern California cities that have seen an increased minority presence on their city councils since shifting to district elections.
Denise Barnes became the first Latina elected to the Anaheim City Council in its first district election in 2016. Also elected to the council that year was Jose Moreno, the lead plaintiff in a successful ACLU lawsuit against the city in 2012 seeking to end at-large elections.
In Highland’s first district election in 2016, voters delivered wins to two Latinos — Jesse Chavez and Anaeli Solano.
In San Juan Capistrano, Councilman Sergio Farias counts himself as a beneficiary of district elections. In 2008, he came in last among six candidates seeking two at-large council seats. After a change to district elections in 2016, Farias ran again — and won, with 58% of the vote
“I knocked on every door. People were giving me tamales and inviting me in for parties. I had very good conversations with people and I got to meet a lot of good people I never met before,” said Farias, who was just appointed to another term because he faced no opposition this year.
Palmdale fought a Voting Rights Act lawsuit for three years before settling the case for $4.5 million with Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman, who for several years has used the legislation to threaten cities to ditch their at-large elections or face lawsuits. The city held its first district election in 2016, when Juan Carrillo was elected, becoming the first Latino Democrat to serve on the council, Shenkman said.
But while Shenkman cites Palmdale as a city that has increased its Latino representation via district elections, Robb Korinke, founder of the political consulting and data firm GrassrootsLab, said the change hasn’t made any difference at all.
“They went through a very costly court battle. That city had, I believe, one Latino member at the time, Roxana Martinez. They have one today, Juan Carrillo, so there’s been no increase” in Latino representation, Korinke said.
In Corona, where 44% of the nearly 170,000 residents are Latino, district elections were held for the first time in 2018. Among the three new members elected to the Council, was Latina Jacque Casillas, who managed a citizen-led effort to promote district elections in the city and also led countywide Latino voter registration efforts, according to her biography on the city’s website.
In contrast, Wildomar, another Riverside County city with a Latino population of more than 41%, did not see any significant changes to its City Council in terms of racial or ethnic makeup after transitioning to district elections in 2016.
And in Garden Grove, Councilwoman Kim Nguyen, a second-generation Vietnamese Latina, was elected to the council in 2016, at the age of 25, in the city’s first district election. Elected that same year was Vietnamese community activist Diedre Thu-Ha Nguyen.
Statewide, the number of Latinos elected to K-12 school boards and community college district boards has nearly doubled since the Voting Rights Act took effect 18 years ago, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
“Based on our analysis, the number of Latino elected school board members in 2002, which includes both elected K-12 school board members and community college trustees, was 427. The comparable number for 2019 was 782,” said Rosalind Gold, the group’s chief public policy officer.
Slow progress, rapid change
Before the CVRA was passed in 2001, only 29 of California’s 482 cities held district elections. And in the 14 years following passage of the act, only nine cities transitioned from at-large to district elections, according to a 2016 study by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College.
It wasn’t until lawyers and voting rights activists began threatening legal action against cities that failed to adhere to the legislation that a pattern began to emerge, one that has been steadily gaining momentum in the past decade, and even more so in the past five years.
Shenkman has sued or threatened to sue roughly 20 cities up and down the state over the past eight years, and he’s tied up now in another legal battle with the city of Santa Monica that has spanned three years. In that case, the trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, based in part on evidence that Latinos could obtain 30% voting power in one area of the city under a district election system.
The city appealed, and in a July 9 opinion, a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court ruling, concluding that the judge misapplied the legal standards for determining vote dilution under the CVRA. Specifically, the appellate judges said that “30% is not enough to win a majority and to elect someone to the city council, even in a district system,” according to the League of California Cities.
The fight, however, is not over. Shenkman appealed to the state Supreme Court, and his petition is pending.
Voting rights groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice also have sued or threatened to sue cities in recent years, alleging their at-large system disenfranchises minority voters.
The plaintiffs have prevailed in most of those cases, and the trajectory of cities transitioning from at-large to district elections has been skyrocketing.
Thomas Saenz, MALDEF’s president and general counsel, said cities are more prone to avoid trial, settle cases and implement district elections because plaintiffs merely have to show that racially polarized voting occurs.
Generally, polarized voting exists when candidates preferred by racial or ethnic minorities are different than those preferred by the White majority, and are unable to win in at-large elections.
“The CVRA says if you can illustrate racially polarized voting, then you prevail,” Saenz said. “So in most cases, unless there’s some countervailing evidence that there is not racially polarized voting, it’s the wise decision of the jurisdiction to go with district elections.”
What studies show
A UC Riverside study published in December 2019 examined the racial composition of city councils before and after fully switching from at-large to district elections. It found an increase of minority representation on city councils of 10-12%, constituting more than one-half a council seat for every five-member city council in California.
“In some cities, the effect will be a bit larger and some a bit smaller, averaging out to 10-12%,” said Loren Collingwood, a political science professor at UC Riverside and the study’s lead author.
In their 2016 study, the Rose Institute researchers found that from the time the California Voting Rights Act took effect in 2002 until 2016, the number of California cities using district elections more than doubled — from 29 to 59. The shift from at-large to district elections began to gain momentum after Modesto agreed to a $3 million settlement in 2008, and accelerated further after Palmdale agreed to a $4.5 million settlement in 2015.
Korinke, of GrassrootsLab, said his company tracked nearly 80 cities that have changed to district elections since 2016, and the results were clearly mixed.
“The move to district elections is not a foolproof method to increase minority representation, and the data pretty clearly shows that,” Korinke said.
He cited the city of Hemet, which is 43% Latino and switched to district elections, but still has no Latino council member.
Of 21 cities that completed the transition since 2016, 14 have seen an increase in minority representation, he said.
Torrance, the largest city in the South Bay, held its first district election in March after legal threats from Shenkman. But it didn’t have much effect. Two incumbent council members, George K. Chen and Mike Griffiths, were re-elected along with newcomer Sharon Kalani. Three candidates backed by local Democrats lost by relatively large margins.
Nearby Carson, one of the most diverse cities in Southern California, will conduct its first district election in November. However, the incumbent mayor and two City Council incumbents are all minorities, as are most of their challengers.
Saenz argues that in cities still lacking minority representation despite the move to district elections, progress takes time.
“Sometimes it takes a transition period of election cycles before you see the effect of the change in election outcome,” he said.