So what are district elections? It means voters who live within the geographical bounds of an electoral district are permitted to vote in an election held there.
Santa Barbara joined a list of California cities that have been forced to change the way they elect councilmembers in order to give Latinos and other minority groups equal representation in city government. On February 24, 2015, Santa Barbara city councilmembers unanimously voted in closed session to approve the partial settlement of a lawsuit that alleged the city was violating the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) by continuing with at-large city council elections, which racially polarized voting. The 2002 act made it illegal for municipalities to hold at-large elections if the process dilutes the voting power of minority groups or denies them political representation. It is an expansion of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. The act states that disenfranchised groups do not have to prove there is a deliberate intent to discriminate against them, only that voting in a municipality is polarized in a way that mutes the voices of a minority.
The 2007 Grand Jury investigation found that the city had racially polarized voting and that the city council was not reflective of neighborhood needs. Although the grand jury made simple suggestions like changing committees and commissions to reflect neighborhoods by appointment, the city council denied such suggestions and no action was ever taken.
In response to city council’s disregard of the grand jury findings, a district elections committee was created in 2013. The need for proper community representation was most obvious with the failed gang injunction that the all-white city council wanted to impose on Latinos. Following the formation of the committee, a candidate forum was held at the main library where the mayor and other councilmembers were asked if they would consider districts — all agreed that they supported at-large voting without further discussion.
In March of 2014, the District Elections Committee (DEC) held a public forum and brought other city representatives to speak about the benefits of districts. The council was again asked to consider a ballot measure or an alternative. No action was taken. The DEC then began gathering funds to file a lawsuit against the city on the basis of violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) that led to Latino vote dilution. Attorney Barry Cappello was hired and went to public comment to inform the city council that a lawsuit would be filed if the council did not take action to put district elections on the ballot. The city council voted to hold a workshop to study a potential ballot measure. The council held a special meeting at the end of spring 2014 and voted not to put districts on the ballot, and instead hire an expert to determine if the city actually had an issue with racially polarized voting. The city attorney warned the city council that they might lose if a lawsuit was filed and that they should consider hiring an expert quickly to help them decide whether to place the issue on the ballot. The council voted for an expert but did not vote to allocate funding. The DEC then decided to file the lawsuit. To cover the costs of the attorney fees, DEC reached out to their allies in the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) to host a local fundraiser.
After the lawsuit was filed, community members suggested to DEC the need for even-year elections to be incorporated into the lawsuit. Cappello went to the city council in November 2014 and stated during public comment that plaintiffs Frank Banales, Jacqueline Inda, Cruzito Cruz, Sebastian Aldana Jr., and Benjamin Cheverez supported the idea of settling the case in addition to adding even-year elections if the majority of city council would support the notion. The city council agreed to settle the case without the inclusion of even-year elections.
Santa Barbara’s city council currently consists of 7 members (6 council members plus the mayor) who are all elected at-large, which means that all voters throughout Santa Barbara vote for every council seat. This system is not adequate to represent the diverse population of the city. A district-based election system is needed to ensure that all neighborhoods are equally and fairly represented. The city’s at-large election system kept Latinos from being able to elect a candidate of their choice. Latinos make up 38% of city residents but only one Latino city councilmember has been elected to the council in the last 10 years. No Latino has been elected mayor since the city switched to at-large elections in 1968. Data shows that in the state of California, every city has about 12% Latino voters registered. Santa Barbara fell bellow 10%, which means that out of the 38% Latino voters that are eligible to vote, only a handful are even registered. Santa Barbara currently has about 4% of the Latino community voting consistently. In order to build a voter drive it is necessary to register at least 4,000 Latino voters to get to the average 12% Latino registered numbers that other cities have.
District elections would force council candidates to be responsive to the city’s poorer, predominately Latino residents. Santa Barbara is already polarized along class and racial lines, catering to big businesses and tourists. Candidates would have to walk neighborhoods and meet the residents.
So what’s next?
DEC and allies will continue to educate and engage Santa Barbara residents all over the city to ensure that the process of drawing district lines is done fairly. The DEC hopes to help other political action groups identify diverse candidates to run in districts, candidates can participate in DEC candidate development trainings in order to gain the necessary skills to be a viable candidate to fill any elected or appointed position in the future. The DEC will help the city and community engage in focus groups by district to identify needs and solutions based on district voices to address neighborhood concerns.
The public’s input is significant when determining the geographical boundaries of the new electoral districts as gerrymandering, the redistricting process, has been linked to the rise in polarization by making more homogeneous, ideologically distinct districts. The final district boundaries will be determined by the city council with the assistance of the community.
How to get involved?
A public workshop will be held on March 18 at 9 a.m. in the Faulkner Gallery at the Central Library at 40 East Anapamu St. The City Council will conduct hearings on March 24 and 30 to finalize the district plan map boundaries.
The city has also created a districting process website with interactive tools in order to facilitate and encourage public participation.
We are urging Santa Barbara residents to post pictures of themselves on our Facebook page with #SantaBarbaraLookLikeThis to honor the diversity and beauty of our city.
SB Dining: This week we encourage you to try Cesar’s Place at 712 N. Milpas St. Check out their Camarones a la Diabla (Spicy Mexican Shrimp with Chipotle Recipe) with their famous Micheladas (a Mexican beer prepared with lime juice, assorted sauces, spices and peppers, served in a chilled, salt-rimmed glass). #KeepItLocal