Recently there has been a movement afoot in our state to force cities and school districts that elect representatives “at-large” to change to district elections. Much of this has been spurred by voter advocacy groups anxious to utilize the California Voting Rights Act, signed by Gray Davis in 2002.
District elections, so the reasoning goes, are more likely than at-large elections to enhance — or at least protect — the voting power of certain “protected classes.” And while district elections have always been considered a “liberal” cause, Davis is the exception. As you no doubt know, in Davis being liberal is the status quo. And here, perhaps surprisingly to certain outsiders, there is considerable resistance to district elections for either the school board or the city council.
The reason is simple. Those in power always like the system that put them in power. And in Davis, that system is at-large elections.
I’ve always liked the notion of district elections because they tend to bring out more true “grass roots” candidates. Plus, the influence of money is greatly reduced because a candidate has a much smaller number of voters to appeal to. And, in a town like Davis, carving the city up into five or seven districts means your elected representative isn’t likely to live more than a few blocks down the street.
The downside, for me at least, is that as things currently stand, I have a chance to vote for — or against — every single member of the Davis City Council. The same for the school board.
If I don’t like how the mayor is performing, I can vote against him next time. Under district elections that will be possible only if he happens to be my representative.
Under district elections, I’ll get to have a say in the seat of just one member of the council. Under our current at-large elections, I get to have a say in the fate of every single member of the council.
I’m not sure I’d willingly give up four-fifths of my voting power without a fight. Plus, just because my councilperson would also be my neighbor under district elections, there’s absolutely no guarantee he and I — or she and I — will even remotely see eye to eye on the issues of the day.
If you look at our last election in June, there was a reasonable chance that among my three votes, I would help to pick at least one member of the future Davis City Council. In the district scenario, however, the chances are much reduced that the top vote-getter on a five or six-candidate slate will happen to be my first choice.
On the flip side, the influence of money cannot be overlooked. It’s hard to run a citywide election in a town like Davis without a decent war chest. In district elections, with the pie divided five ways – or maybe even seven ways – the influence of money is greatly diminished.
I mean, who wants to place a full-page newspaper ad that goes to the whole town when he’s trying to reach only 20 percent of the town? The same for expensive mailings. In a small district, the candidate and a few volunteers can deliver that four-color campaign mailer on foot.
Under the district plan, candidates might actually be able to knock on the doors of virtually every voter, as at-large candidates used to do before the town became much too big for that possibility.
Although I have absolutely no idea or expectation of how the philosophy of the council might change, if at all, under district elections, I do think we’d see a greatly expanded pool of viable candidates, which is usually a good thing.
People have tried, and failed, to bring district elections to Davis, but have rarely gained much traction for their efforts. People immediately run up the red flag and claim district representation is “divisive,” since each council member is responsible only to his own district, not to the whole town. Fair enough.
Then again, we elect every member of the Yolo County Board of Supervisors by district, all members of the California Legislature — both the Assembly and the Senate — by district, and all members of the U.S. House of Representatives by district.
We even elect members of the U.S. Senate by district — two per district — though their districts aren’t equal in population as the others are.
The only truly “at-large” national election is for president, but even that one is muddied considerably by the Electoral College.
In most large cities and even some cities the size of Davis or smaller, district elections are the only way to guarantee adequate minority representation. Davis, however, doesn’t seem to fit that category. The historic lack of minority representation on our City Council can’t be pinned on the at-large system of selecting council members.
If a proposal for district elections at either the council or the school board level were ever put on the ballot in Davis, I’m certain it would fail.
However, outside groups, some with the best of intentions, are eyeing various towns and school boards in the state with the possibility of using the courts to force district elections upon them.
If you think we’re immune to such efforts, think again.
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