GOT MLK? In my household, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was always a big deal. That it happened to fall on mother’s birthday may have been part of it. My mother was there for King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech by the Lincoln Memorial, and when she came back, she was beyond giddy. I was young and decidedly uncomfortable with my mother deviating from what I expected. Mostly, I was embarrassed she wouldn’t stop singing “We Shall Overcome.” Today, with a black man in the White House, we’ve clearly overcome much. Just as obviously — with black men getting killed and incarcerated in barbaric numbers — there’s still a lot of overcoming to do. Here in Santa Barbara, we celebrated the day with a free-flowing exchange of spit in front of the Santa Barbara News-Press building, with “free speech” advocates, imported all the way from Orange County for the occasion, telling our very own “burrito eaters” and “beaners” to return — posthaste — to their countries of origin. Presumably this line of argument works somewhere down in Orange County. The stir arose out of the News-Press’s editorial decision to refer to undocumented immigrants as “illegals” in news articles and headlines. For the record, no one has suggested the News-Press can’t use this language. Only that they shouldn’t. The fact is most of us break the law with some regularity, though typically with less justification and provocation than those crossing our borders. It seems little-minded and hard-hearted to reduce this swirling epic of human migration to something as paltry and oversimplified as “illegal.” But, of course, they’re entitled. Those criticizing the News-Press were done no favors by the radical chic nitwits who vandalized the offices of our erstwhile daily paper with pro-immigrant protest graffiti. Maybe that line of argument, also, flies somewhere down in Orange County.
This year, MLK Day arrived as we approached the 50th anniversary of King’s historic march from Selma, which would give rise to the even more historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. Our retrograde Supreme Court saw fit to eviscerate that law in 2013, on the grounds that such protections were no longer necessary. As a result, no fewer than 22 states have now enacted new rules and regulations making voting and voter registration harder to do. It is no doubt coincidental the voters most affected by these restrictions happen to be the young, the minorities, and the poor. Equally coincidental is that overwhelmingly, these were enacted by Republican legislatures.
In Santa Barbara, the voting-rights picture is problematic in the extreme and promises to get only more so. Last Friday, the Santa Barbara City Council met for two hours in closed session to discuss possible ways to settle a voting-rights lawsuit to force City Hall to adopt district elections because the current at-large system yields “racially polarized” results. They didn’t find one. Many excuses have been made and many explanations offered, but the inexplicable and inexcusable fact remains that only two Latinos have been elected to the council in the past 20 years. Only five have been elected since 1968. No matter how you do the math, that doesn’t add up. The remedy, the courts say, is district elections, which generally are more accommodating and accessible to groups on the margins. A majority of the council disagrees, citing logrolling, featherbedding, horse trading, and other arcane practices few know the meaning of. But if the case goes to trial, it’s all but certain they’ll lose. They’re eager to avoid such excruciations, and even more adverse to paying attorney Barry Cappello, who represents the District Elections Committee, a king’s ransom in legal fees. The chicken bone in the throat is the district boundaries: Where will they be drawn and how? City Hall wants the public to have time enough to weigh in on the formation of the six new districts. But the committee is skeptical and adverse, suspecting the council is trying to drag things out. The plaintiffs are mostly a group of Latino activists who started La Casa de la Raza back in the 1970s, combined with a smattering of younger players who fought City Hall’s proposed gang injunction. In the meantime, another group of younger progressive hell-raisers associated with groups like CAUSE — not to mention the Democratic Party — worry Latino voters will be smooshed into just two districts, leaving the four others vulnerable to takeover by more conservative candidates.
And they’ve stumbled onto an obscure fact with a very big impact. Santa Barbara is the only governmental entity within 50 miles to hold elections on odd-numbered years. Studies show that timing, far more than districts, affects how many voters show up at the polls. As a rule, City Council races generate little voter interest. But when they’re held in odd-numbered years — no presidential race, no gubernatorial contest — there’s even less. In 2012, for example, 65,000 votes were cast in the race for Santa Barbara School Board by city voters. But in 2013, only 49,000 votes were cast in Santa Barbara’s city council and mayoral race. To get a clearer picture still, you need to keep in mind that in the school board race, three seats were up for grabs and voters, accordingly, could cast a maximum of three ballots. In the city races, however, there were four contested positions, meaning each voter could cast up to four votes. Assuming everyone voting cast the maximum number of ballots allowed, 21,666 city residents participated in the 2012 school board election, while only 12,250 did the same for the mayoral and council races. If Santa Barbara switched from odd to even, turnout would increase by nearly 25 percent overnight. And City Hall could pocket the $300,000 it now spends to maintain its odd-man-out schedule.
The odd-year effect manifests itself most negatively on lower-income, minority, and younger voters. For example, the number of Latinos voting within city limits dropped by two-thirds from 2012-2013. During that same time, the drop in white voters was 50 percent. There’s growing interest gathering in the activist universe that the council insist the odd-to-even switch be included as part of any negotiated deal that includes district elections. If it isn’t, the council should make the switch itself. Otherwise, candidates running for the two “safe” Latino seats can get elected with just a few hundred votes and then make decisions affecting 100,000 residents. How interested the councilmembers are, I don’t know. The plaintiffs have expressed an openness to including such a change in the settlement, but it’s not their baby. For it to happen, City Hall will have to push it, not the committee. The picture, like I say, is problematic. But interesting. In the meantime, happy birthday, MLK. And happy birthday to my mother, too.