by Mayor Edi Birsan

There has been a trending set of litigious attacks on cities demanding that they convert to District elections from the more traditional At-Large election style. Recently the City of Martinez has been targeted and it is expected that Brentwood would be not far behind. The basis of the legal attack is the California Voting Rights Act and the belief that polarized voting in minorities exists based on ethnic, perceived race, or language. Unfortunately, the drive appears to be more a matter of generating billing hours for law firms than true care about the issues of under-representation of minorities.

However, let us put aside the entire concept of the minorities and let us look at my favorite group of left-handed blonde Apaches who are Hindu converts and populate our test municipality with 100% of these folks. When the municipality has a population of 100 it would seem reasonable to have At-Large Elections for the City Council. Likewise, at 1,000,000 it would seem reasonable to have districts and that is solely based on population. The question then remains at what point do we make the transition from At-Large to Districts in a homogenous community?

Arguments FOR districts:

  1. Districts bring direct focused representation of a single Councilmember to a specific geographic area. This allows direct accountability. It also means that there is always a go-to person for the constituents rather than a shotgun blast at a five-member council to see who responds.
  2. Districts are 1/5 or so the size of the city, so in a city such as Concord, there are 65,000 registered voters. If divided into five districts that means that there are 13,000 voters who probably live in 7,000 households. To mail a flyer to those households in a district costs about $3750 whereas for the At-large candidate or representative the cost is five times that.
  3. Districts allow for local leaders to come forth and need substantially less money to have a viable campaign. We know that face to face contact beats mail and email, and in a six-month campaign, a single candidate can hit 6000 doors. That is not enough in an At-Large situation and hence we see massive amounts of money spent to reach voters.

Arguments AGAINST districts?

  1. If your elected council person is a dud then you are stuck with them for four years as in an at-large situation you can reasonably call on everyone else on the council to bitch and moan with.
  2. Focused power may become a small fiefdom which is internally looking without taking the interest of the city as a whole. It also creates and encourages specialization in an area that may cause a growth in ignorance in the other parts of the city.
  3. It can pit one part of the city against another. However, in large cities, this may be mitigated. For example, in Concord with four districts and a directly elected mayor, our districts would be the equivalent of Clayton, Moraga and Oakley combined. Note that each of those cities has a council of five so a total of 15 councilmembers compared to one for a Concord District.

The complication of attempting to answer racial polarization has had interesting effects in cities that were forced to go to districts. There is an overwhelming tendency in the short run for the same people or type of people to be elected. There are cases where there has been a sudden influx of minorities to the councils, but to the credit of our American electorate, the temptation of racial voting was avoided in case after case.

So do the valid arguments on each side cancel each other out or are some more weighty than others?

For me, in large cities over 100,000, the reduction of cost of entry into the political field should, but not always, brings in more competition and better leadership. However, each city dynamic is different.   Different levels of fear of provincialism prevail, making any shift towards Districts a matter of community outreach. Now the question remains if there is an outreach, who will be touched by it and respond, and are they representative? We will see.