Voting District Measure Would Create Inequities

Voting District Measure Would Create Inequities
by Leah Ersoylu
posted with permission from the author

The Costa Mesa Council recently voted 3-2 in favor of placing a measure regarding council district boundaries on the ballot.

To avoid a potential lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act (VRA), many cities are moving in this direction from at-large to district elections to ensure compliance with VRA so that the voices of all voters are more likely to be heard.

Of all the choices offered, the council chose six districts, with one citywide elected mayor. This was a fascinatingly odd choice to anyone who had been watching the process unfold over the past several months.

The equity advocate in me is disheartened. The intent of VRA is to decrease minority vote dilution. The compliance mitigation involves showing evidence of racially polarized voting and that a district can be drawn in which the minority group in question will be better-positioned to elect a candidate of their choice.

Consensus is that districts are better than at-large elections at doing so. This begs the question, why would we even entertain the inclusion of any at-large position in this new governance structure at all? How does that ensure our compliance?

With a 6-plus-1 structure, there will always be a neighborhood with two representatives. I don’t see how that puts Costa Mesa in better standing regarding the VRA. And, frankly, of the six, with a Latino population nearing 40% and a sizable Asian population as well, why are there not 2 of 6 majority-minority districts as an option?

The fiscal watchdog in me is fearful. Moving to an at-large mayor format is disconcerting. The majority of cities in California have a council-manager format, where the council is elected and members take turns serving as mayor.

Most critically, they hire a well-paid city manager (as we have) to implement their vision. This is what we have now.
Another model, in some older and larger cities is the mayor-council model. Here, a mayor has increased, concentrated powers of administration and budget and is in an often, but not always paid position.

Of course, the specifications of these augmented powers are found in a city’s charter. Now, from my vantage point, this model generates a slippery slope where, for a relatively small city, we’d be moving toward that paid mayor position, which, with a city manager in place, we simply don’t need.

The fan of democracy in me is upset. Let’s talk about reality of elections.

Having a mayor position essentially makes it so that someone from council will likely always run for that seat after serving their eight years. Then, because Costa Mesa allows folks to run for Council again, after a break, this person can go back to their council seat after a few years “off.”

You are breeding career politicians with this model. Let’s talk about the cost of running a race; it will be essentially impossible for a newcomer to win that mayor race; they will habitually be running against a perceived “incumbent” because that former council person will have name recognition and a ballot designation of council member. Reality check: most incumbents win their reelections; this is a fact.

Citywide races are prohibitively expensive for most. Districts allow for regular folks to actually get involved and have a real shot. Raising $15,000 to $50,000 for a district election is far more feasible than raising $150,000 to try to be viable as a non-incumbent in a city this size.

This all bothers me, not as a Ph.D in political science, but as a person who grew up in a working poor family, where I learned early on of the countless ways the game is rigged. It happens just like this — in the mundane policy decisions, where no one is paying attention. This structure won’t benefit the average Jane. It’s well thought out to preserve power for those already holding it.

LEAH ERSOYLU is a member of the city’s Bikeway and Walkability Committee and owner of Ersoylu Consulting.

from the Daily Pilot July 29, 2016