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Council Elections by Districts or At-Large?

Santa Barbara Had District Elections, and Switched, with Greater Diversity


As a result of the settlement of a lawsuit, the city of Modesto shifted from at-large elections to district elections in 2009. (Modesto’s population is 203,547. White only is 49 percent, Latino 36 percent, Asian 7 percent, African American 4 percent, “other” 8 percent.)

Five of the current councilmembers are white, and two are Latino. (One

is a woman.) I called the mayor’s office to ask if the council had been lilywhite before the change.

As a result of explaining why I was calling, I had a chat with the mayor’s secretary (a Latina). She was “disappointed for the city” with the settlement. She believes Latinos now have less influence since they can only vote for one council candidate and cannot affect the other council races. “Why would anyone give up their right to vote for all the council seats to vote for just one?” she asked.

When I spoke with Mayor Garrad Marsh, he told me that the Modesto city councils had been “male, pale, and stale”. (He’s male and pale.) He supported the change because of the cost of elections. He (and the secretary) said that the two most recently elected councilmembers had vigorous door-to-door campaigns and spent very little.

Santa Barbara is quite different.

In 1968 the residents of the City of Santa Barbara voted to end the then-current ward system in exchange for election at-large of all city councilmembers.

The League of Women Voters, which strongly supported the change away from the ward system, commented:

1. City councilmembers elected at-large rather than from five or six districts or wards, although aware of local problems, are free to make their decisions based on the needs of the entire community.

2. The chances are better for well-qualified candidates — and more of them — to seek office when unhampered by artificial district boundaries.

3. Citizens represented at-large have access to six members of council rather than one.

4. Under the old ward system, a voter cast a ballot for only one councilmember every four years. A city council elected at-large gives each citizen the opportunity to vote for three members every two years.

5. District or ward representation tends to lead to decisions made not on their merits but on the basis of “swapping support” (“You vote for what I want, or I won’t vote for what you want.”)

These points are valid today.

It is said that a district system would provide for greater opportunity for minority representation on the City Council. That has not been true in Santa Barbara. There was one Latino elected to the City Council during the 45 years of the ward system and another was appointed to fill out a term. There have been four Latinos and one African American elected to the council during the 46 years of the at-large system. (And 11 women have been elected, including four as mayor.)

The ward system did not lead to fairer or better representation. When people had their “own” councilmember, that councilmember was quite likely to be concerned over the problems in his or her own district rather than putting them in priority in the context of the community as a whole.

More people have run for city council than ran under the ward/district system. Incumbents regularly ran without opposition.

Some years ago I compared voter turnout in Santa Barbara with turnout in cities with districts. It was higher in Santa Barbara. Perhaps that is because there is more choice and more direct control of local government.

District election advocates assert that California is a Latino state. While at 40 percent of the population, whites are no longer the majority, neither are Latinos at 38 percent. In our state, 13 percent are Asian, 7 percent African American, and 2 percent “other.” In Santa Barbara, whites are 55 percent of the population, Latinos are 38 percent, Asians 3 percent, African Americans 2 percent, and 2 percent are other races.

The present system serves the community well. It works. Santa Barbara is small enough for each councilmember to know the whole city well. It is small enough for door-to-door campaigns.

As Modesto’s Latina secretary asked, “Why would anyone give up their right to vote for all the council seats to vote for just one?”

Let’s not give up the power to choose all councilmembers and to have councilmembers who are responsive to all city residents.

Sheila Lodge is a former City of Santa Barbara mayor and city councilmember. Demographics data is from the US Census 2010.

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