.Where the New District Elections System Went Wrong

Only one of the six candidates running for the two city council seats is Latinx

The move to district elections that was supposed to bring more Latinx representation to Santa Cruz City Council might instead produce a drastically less diverse body of elected leaders in its debut.

Since 1948, Santa Cruz voters have been able to choose candidates for all open seats. But that system was accused of diluting the Latinx vote in Santa Cruz and violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA), according to a complaint filed against the city in 2019. 

Ultimately, this led to the city’s shift to district elections earlier this year. Santa Cruz was split into six districts that will determine their representatives in upcoming elections, with an at-large elected mayor. 

But despite the stated goal of increasing diversity among local elected officials, all but one of six candidates for the two city council seats up for grabs in the upcoming Nov. 8 midterm—the city’s first cycle using district voting—are white.

In addition, the council could also become less diverse after the 3rd District Santa Cruz County Supervisor race between councilmembers Justin Cummings and Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.

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Whether he wins the supervisorial seat or not, Cummings will leave the council at the end of the year, as his first term is set to expire in December—in order to focus on the supervisor race, he did not file for reelection. Kalantari-Johnson’s term doesn’t expire until 2024, but if she bests Cummings in November, she will have to vacate her seat on the city council. Santa Cruz would then have to host a special election to fill the vacancy.

With the council potentially losing a woman of color and a Black man, depending on how the supervisor race shakes out, some worry about how this election will reshape the demographics of the council. Currently, it features a more diverse range of councilmembers than the city has ever seen, with three Black members, one gay member and six women serving.

The lack of diverse candidates is one of the primary reasons that Hector Marin, the only Latinx candidate for city council, was inspired to run to represent District 4—which encompasses downtown and the Beach Flats and Mission Street neighborhoods. He hopes to give the Latinx community, which makes up 20% of Santa Cruz residents, representation.

If elected, Marin would be just the third Latinx candidate to serve on the council in the past quarter-century.

Looking at the make-up of the candidates that are running, Marin doubts that the move to district elections will result in its intended goal of bringing more Latinx representation.

As researchers continue to study the relatively new concept of district elections leading to more minority representation, more people are questioning the link, and whether all cities are fit for such electoral systems. Some wonder about the intentions behind the legal threats levied against cities, and whether district elections can have the opposite intended effect, resulting in less diversity in local political offices.

“I’m the only Latino candidate, period,” says Marin. “That’s crazy when this whole change [to district elections] was arranged so there can be more representation for the Latinx community. Now, we see the opposite of that within Santa Cruz.” 

Behind the Scenes

In the past two decades, more than 150 cities have transitioned to district elections, due to lawsuits that claim violations of the CVRA. 

It costs cities upwards of $1 million to challenge these lawsuits. Santa Monica is fighting the allegation that its voting system is racially polarized, and has already spent more than $8 million. That case is still underway—and to date, no jurisdiction has been successful in challenging a CVRA violation lawsuit. 

Robb Korinke says he wouldn’t be surprised if every city in California soon switches to district elections, even if the move doesn’t always result in more minority local officials. 

Korinke is the principal director of GrassrootsLabs, an organization that researches and collects data analysis on state and local government issues. District elections came on Korinke’s radar in recent years, as their prevalence accelerated across the state—from 2002 to 2016, cities with district elections nearly doubled.

What Korinke wanted to find out was if this switch led to the results that the lawsuits intended: more Latinx representation. 

“Is a conversion of districts a guarantee to increased Latino representation? Our research shows that no, it is not,” says Korinke.  

There may not be a guarantee, but what his team found by looking at cities transitioning to districts in 2016, 2018 and 2020, was a measurable increase in Latinx representation.

From 2015 to 2021, the percentage of Latinx representatives across those cities jumped from 7.5% to 18%.

Still, Korinke says his research found a few cities where Latinx representation in that time frame was lost after the switch to district elections. That happened in eight different cities across California. In those instances, the Latinx representative lost to someone who was not from a minority background.

Korinke says that regardless of whether district elections are the solution for more Latinx candidates being elected to local government, the business of threatening cities with a CVRA lawsuit is a profitable one, because attorneys never lose. 

“It became a cottage industry for attorneys to go and sue cities and force them and compel them into districts,” says Korinke. “The legislature actually passed a law that reduced the damages, or the legal fees paid out to the lawyers. But there are a handful of attorneys that have really taken this and made it a central part of their business.”

Attorney Kevin Shenkman is one such lawyer making a name for himself by threatening cities with lawsuits over at-large elections. Even though Shenkman estimates that he has filed hundreds of complaints against cities, he says he’s not in it for the money. But Shenkman does acknowledge that some attorneys in this industry are less interested in more diverse representation, and more interested in monetizing the system. 

He finds it interesting that Santa Cruz was hit with the lawsuit, as he says his firm looked into Santa Cruz not too long ago but decided against pursuing any legal threats related to voting rights violations. Shenkman doesn’t remember the exact reasoning behind this decision, but he guesses his firm likely did not find enough evidence that Santa Cruz’s at-large election system was diluting the Latinx vote.

Shenkman says that his firm uses experts to determine racially polarized voting, usually by analyzing data from past elections. Some other things Shenkman considers before pursuing legal actions are what percentage of the population is of Latinx descent, how many of those people are registered to vote, if that population is clustered in one area and, lastly, the city council’s racial make-up.

The Santa Cruz complaint was brought forward by Santa Barbara-based Fargely Law on behalf of Travis Roderick, an area resident who also brought a similar claim to Santa Cruz City Schools, which consequently shifted to district elections.

The lawyer who filed the civil complaint, Micah David Fargey, is now suspended from practicing law. In April of this year, the State Bar Court of California found he had failed to perform his duties in competence on behalf of one of his clients. When he filed the lawsuit in May of 2020, Fargey was a licensed attorney, and at this point, it would be too late to change course, city officials say.

Santa Cruz City Manager Matt Huffaker says that even with this development, Santa Cruz’s fate is sealed: the move to district elections is underway. 

Overall, Korinke says that district elections aren’t a fix-all. Bigger cities with higher concentrations of minorities in specific areas have a better chance of using district elections to increase the diversity of city officials, he says. While district elections do decrease financial barriers to running campaigns, and also diversify the candidates geographically, he says, there are too many factors for them to guarantee more diversity.

“They’re not a silver bullet. It is not a guarantee that your city is moving to districts based on a lawsuit that they must increase Latino representation,” says Korinke. “If a community is underrepresented, historically, districts are an important tool to try and correct that.” 

Tracking Trends

Santa Cruz’s neighbor to the south, Watsonville, is also facing a diversity shift in its city council that might lead to fewer Latinx representatives after its midterm elections.

Watsonville has had district elections for decades, and even helped perpetuate the notion that this system increases the chances of producing Latinx elected representatives. According to the 1980 Census, people of Latinx descent made up 36% of Watsonville’s community, but there was only one Latino on the city council in 1989. Locals sued the city for inadequate Latinx representation in their elected leaders, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which found that the city’s at-large elections were, indeed, diluting the Latinx vote.

At the time, this was a huge win for voting rights activists like Celia Organista, who was a member of the organization behind the effort to change the district elections.

Now, some 30 years later, two white candidates are running unopposed to replace two current Latinx representatives. These changes—and the result of the Fourth District Supervisor race between Felipe Hernandez and current councilmember Jimmy Dutra—could produce a Watsonville City Council with just three people of Latinx descent, the fewest since 2000. Since the turn of the century, the Watsonville City Council—which represents a constituency that is now more than 85% Latinx—has had four to five Latinx council members out of the seven seats.

Organista acknowledges that district elections aren’t all she had hoped for, and don’t hold the key to unlocking more Latinx representation—it’s more nuanced than that, she says.

“The more you kind of look at what it takes to do those kinds of local political roles, the more you see why it’s hard to engage Latinos,” says Organista. “People shy away because they don’t have the support that sometimes people who have more money have, they don’t have the time, they’re working full-time jobs.”

That’s also what Watsonville Councilmember Rebecca Garcia, a Latina who will be “termed out” of office in December, encountered when trying to recruit Latinx people to run to replace her. People are recovering from the pandemic, and don’t have the time to prioritize running for office, Garcia said via email. The candidate running unopposed in her district, Casey Clark, is white.

Time is a challenge that Marin has to contend with. He’s working two jobs in addition to running for election. He says he doesn’t have the luxury of dropping his jobs and campaigning 24/7.

“Privilege is 100% a factor in the way that we elect people into office,” says Marin. “There is privilege in race, also privilege in class.” 

In some ways, having one district to focus on helps Marin tackle time and financial restrictions—his spending is centralized, and he has a pocket of roughly 10,000 residents to focus on, rather than the city’s overall population of roughly 64,000.

But it’s not necessarily an equalizer.

“Is it easier to run in district elections than had this been the at-large system? Um, I believe that’s a strong maybe,” says Marin.

1 COMMENT

  1. I would point out that “only” 1 of 6 candidates is Hispanic is 17%, and the city is 20.7% Hispanic.
    NOT EXACTLY DISPROPORTIONATE. It’s as close as you can get to the “right” number running.

    I would point out wailing about the possible loss of any minority council seats when there are exactly ZERO white men, only ONE man, on the 7 seat council in a city of 37% white men, and 49.4% men overall IS BLIND to the real DISPROPORTIONS on the council.

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