Your city may be changing how elections work

Michael Latner, Kendall Science Fellow | December 3, 2019, 4:50 pm EST

San Luis Obispo County is experiencing a flurry of legal challenges to the way cities operate elections.

Faced with accusations that they are violating voting rights protections, many cities, including Santa Maria, Paso Robles, Grover Beach and soon Arroyo Grande, have already changed or plan to change their electoral systems from at-large elections to single-seat districts. Other cities could be next. The city of San Luis Obispo was recently served legal notice, and Atascadero will soon follow.

In single-seat district elections, instead of each voter having, say, three votes to cast if three seats on the council are up for election in a given year, voters will now be assigned to districts, where they will have a single vote and a single council representative for “their” district.

These changes are part of a statewide effort by a handful of attorneys whose incentive may be to address racial discrimination, or may be to receive $30,000 in fees if they get an agreement from a city to switch.

Single-seat districts

Whatever the incentive, why do they urge cities to opt for single-seat districts, when there are a variety of other ways to ensure fair representation for racial minorities and all voters? Here’s why: A provision of the California Voting Rights Act provides “safe harbor” for cities that adopt a single-seat district system. Safe harbor provisions protect against future liability or penalty under specific conditions, in this case if a city is showing “good faith” in achieving fair representation by adopting a district plan. As a result, fearing future lawsuits, city attorneys and councils are quick to accept single-seat district plans.

One small problem: District plans don’t necessarily protect minority voting rights, so they can’t protect a city from future litigation if the adopted plan results in continued or new voting rights violations.

Assigning voters to districts can result in vote dilution as easily as it can remedy it, by creating permanent minority voters in those districts. In fact, we have a now well-known name for it, gerrymandering. Even cities with the best of intentions could end up diluting the votes of racial voting coalitions, in violation of the California Voting Rights Act. Consider two of the area’s newest council members, Maria Garcia of Paso Robles and Erica Stewart of San Luis Obispo, both women of color supported by diverse coalitions of voters, and both elected under at-large plurality.

Neither city is particularly diverse by California standards (both are majority white, non-Hispanic) and in neither city is it possible to create a majority-minority (non-white) district to concentrate the voting strength of non-whites. If the majority of non-white voters in each city supports Garcia and Stewart, and that support, along with “crossover” votes from white voters was enough to get them elected at-large, chopping the city into districts could actually dilute that support across districts. Ironically, both of those cities could return to all-white councils if they adopt district elections.

A new study of this switch to districts in Urban Affairs Review shows this can and has happened. As we would expect, the overall impact of adopting districts in California has been positive, increasing non-white representation on councils by about one seat on average. This is because at-large plurality voting is literally the worst system for promoting minority representation: A white plurality voting as a bloc can win every seat.

However, among the five cities switching that look like San Luis Obispo in terms of being 70% or higher white non-Hispanic (Hemet, San Juan Capistrano, Turlock, Wildomar and Yucaipa) the average change was zero. Only San Juan Capistrano went from an all-white council to add a single minority seat, and Hemet actually went from an 80% white to a 100% white city council. Worse still, of 18 majority-minority cities that switched from at-large to district elections, four of those cities actually lost minority representation. District elections can also create permanent minorities within those neighborhoods, and city politics can become defined by conflict and competition between districts, rather than the public interest of the city as a whole.

Better systems

Fortunately, there are electoral systems that can ensure fair representation for all. For a five-seat council, for example, electing all five seats using the single transferable vote (STV) method, any coalition with about 17% of the vote gets at least a seat. Using STV, voters can rank each candidate on the ballot (1st,2nd,3rd, etc.). The threshold for election is set by dividing the total votes cast by the number of seats to be filled plus one (for a single seat that equals 50% plus one, or simple majority rule). Candidates winning more votes than the threshold are automatically elected and their “surplus” votes are transferred to 2nd choices. Candidates with the least support are eliminated, and those votes are transferred to the next name on the ballot, until all seats are filled. Under this system, any minority group, racial, ideological, or partisan, that meets the threshold will gain representation, regardless of where the voters live. Hundreds of cities across the world use this system, some (in Australia) for a hundred years or more.

Whatever system cities choose — and they should choose systems with the goal of each voter having equal influence — the public needs to be involved at every step. It is unfortunate that the California Voting Rights Act privileges a sub-optimal electoral system, but voters themselves can correct that by requiring city councils to closely evaluate alternatives and make sure than voters are treated equally. Political equality is the standard that democracy requires.

Michael Latner is professor of political science at Cal Poly and senior fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy. He is the author of “Diagnosing Electoral Integrity” in the Oxford University Press book Electoral Integrity in America: Securing Democracy, and co-author of Gerrymandering in America: The House of Representatives, The Supreme Court, and the Future of Popular Sovereignty (Cambridge University Press).

Michael Latner
Professor of Political Science

My research interests include voting rights, electoral system design, and representation.