Has at-large voting outlived its usefulness in Richmond?
on November 7, 2014
After days of heavy rains, Jason Myers’ house looked more like an island. He and his wife had unwittingly just purchased a home at the bottom of a flood basin in the Richmond Annex. Water was up to the doors on their ’63 Ford Falcon.
Myers wrote to city council members to send out a crew to fix the storm water drains. He complained at meetings, made a series of YouTube videos, started a blog. He was also a brief media sensation, garnering national coverage as an example of a citizen slighted. Still, he said, the Richmond council and city manager turned a blind eye.
“I realized that without districts, nobody gives a crap about your neighborhood,” he said, having finally moved in 2013. “We had no representatives advocating on our behalf, so we just get lost in the shuffle.”
Richmond is one of the few major (100,000-plus population) Bay Area cities still electing its council and school board members on an at-large basis, a 100-year old system that’s been under attack throughout California and the country as minority-repressive.
Unlike the now-common ward system, where purposefully drawn districts each select their own representative to look out for their interests, at-large systems elect officials who represent all of the city, inevitably scattering their focus.
When looking at the very visible political dysfunction of Richmond, political experts, activists, and longtime residents say the city has a representation problem — from the “pork barrel” level, where potholes and flooding go untended, to widespread ethnic and geographic disenfranchisement.
They point to a broken political and electoral structure that favors wealthy constituencies and certain geographical areas over all others, compounded by what many consider to be symptoms of the system: deflated voter enthusiasm, low voter registration and even lower turnout.
“Right now, there are no lower-income constituencies [in Richmond],” said Robert Smith, a political scientist at San Francisco State University who’s been watching Richmond closely. “No one is representing their interests and frustrations.”
Flooding certainly isn’t a concern at the moment, but revisiting how the city represents itself may be.
On Tuesday, election day, Richmond’s trending hashtag across social media was #RichmondVotes.
No it doesn’t.
According to 2012 census estimates, Richmond has a population of about 104,000 people: 40,500 Latino, 27,500 African American, 19,000 white, 15,000 Asian, and about 2,000 “other” (not including unincorporated North Richmond).
Of the city’s 43,000 registered voters, fewer than 17,000 of them turned up at the polls—a sixth of the city’s population.
Tom Butt won the mayoral seat with 8,500 votes. The Richmond Progressive Alliance slate swept the council election; outgoing mayor Gayle McLaughlin, incumbent Jovanka Beckles, and Eduardo Martinez were elected with around 7,000 votes each.
Compared to the last midterm election in 2010, voter participation has gone down. And in the 2012 primary election 14,300 voters came out, about 2,000 less than this year’s midterm total of 16,500. The 2012 fall election however, which had Barack Obama at the head of the Democratic ticket, brought out 34,000 voters.
Low turnout appears to advantage a small group of highly engaged voters and well-connected politicians (see charts). Incumbents, slate members, and seasoned politicos play musical chairs in Richmond, a preservation of the status quo enabled by a fatigued, indifferent, and often absent electorate. Before Tuesday’s defeat, council member Nat Bates had been in office for almost three decades, and he still has another two years on council.
A LATINO MAJORITY IN NAME ONLY
In his concession speech Tuesday night, Bates pointed to poor voter turnout for the day’s disappointment. Shields-Reid Community Center near the North Richmond border had just 17 ballots cast by 5:30 p.m. “The African-American community doesn’t turn out unless it’s a national election,” Bates said. “There was no Obama this year.”
Although Tuesday’s voting demographics aren’t yet available, history says Latinos likely cast the fewest percentage of ballots relative to their population.
In the past, Richmond’s African American community—the majority a decade ago—has been well represented on the council.
But today, as in many cities in California and the Southwest, Latinos have become the majority in Richmond. But that majority shrinks to a small minority at the voting booths, according to an analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau and 2012 voter data from the Contra Costa County elections division, courtesy of U.C. Berkeley’s Statewide Database.
There are about 41,000 Latinos in Richmond, and some 7,000 (by surname) are registered to vote. But only 1,600 showed up to vote in 2012 (the latest year with available data). Among the other 63,000 non-Latinos in the city, 35,000 are registered, and about 12,700 of those voted in 2012.
Latino turnout represents just four percent of its population while the rest of the city—white, African American, Asian and other residents—sees 20 percent representation at the polls. The number of Latino ballots cast hardly reflects its majority in the city.
It’s not just an issue of turnout, which compares voters at the polls to those registered. Many Latinos can’t register. The U.S. census bureau estimates a Latino citizen voting age population of about 12,500 in Richmond after excluding persons under 18, those in prison or on parole, and the undocumented.
Quickly the Latino majority turns to a minority come Election Day.
“Their part of the pie gets smaller and smaller,” said Nicole Boyle, a data analyst at Statewide Database, and the more consistently voting (white) demographics “fill in what’s left.”
The remaining sliver of Latinos on the city council rarely come from the same stock or the same neighborhoods as the rest of the Latino population. “It’s a predominantly Latino population and a predominately white electorate,” said Andrés Soto, a progressive activist and longtime resident.
Last term, Jovanka Beckles was the only Latino with a council seat. In December, fellow Richmond Progressive Alliance member Eduardo Martinez will join her.
FLAWS IN AT-LARGE SYSTEM ATTRACT LEGAL CHALLENGES
Richmond votes at-large, an election system in which voters choose from a citywide pool of candidates that are meant to represent the entire city. For example, a voter in the Santa Fe area (20 percent voter turnout) sees the same ballot of candidates as a voter in the Point (54 percent turnout).
Coastal communities to the West and the Richmond Heights to the East—similar in demographics and high in voter registration and turnout—comprise the highlands that edge along the city’s border. Latinos make up less than seven percent of registered voters in these areas; about three percent in the Point.
Last term, four of the seven council members lived in the wealthier edges. Mayor McLaughlin lives in the southern annex.
Moving towards the city’s center, turnout plummets as the Latino population rises. Their heaviest per capita concentration is along the 23rd Street business corridor, where half of registered voters have Latino surnames. The area is a business hub of several tightly packed pockets of small shops: mechanics, bodegas, taquerias.
Boyle said there are many socioeconomic factors also correlated with low-voter enthusiasm in Latino communities, including lower income levels, lower educational attainment, less home ownership, and linguistic isolation.
It’s the exact precedent under which many activist groups have sued California cities, citing the state’s 2002 Voting Rights Act. The law, an expansion on the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, makes it easier for California minorities to claim disenfranchisement in at-large systems that dilute their vote.
Since the passage of the California Voting Rights Act, it’s become increasingly popular for ethnic populations—the sleeping giants—to mobilize and sue for districts. And Richmond’s 41,000 Latinos could make a strong case for severe under-representation, said Karin Mac Donald, director of the Statewide Database.
So far, Southern California has been the nexus of these legal actions. From Compton to Palmdale, cities have dropped their at-large school board and council elections. Modesto was the first to fall in 2007, after a trial court ruled that minorities were being disenfranchised there, setting a precedent for several other cities.
Cultural factors, too, contribute to the disconnect between the Latino majority and a voice in government. Soto, the progressive activist, said the mostly immigrant Latino community in Richmond has long been disenchanted by politics. The corruption and violence associated with government in some Central American countries has turned them off to the whole idea of it. A citywide lawsuit isn’t something he sees them spurring.
“[Their experiences] really inhibited their belief in the political system,” Soto said. “It’s a take-care-of-yourself sort of thing.”
Sergio Rios, vice president of the 23rd Street Merchant Association and owner of Bob’s Cleaners, said he and the other mostly Latino business owners started the group because they thought it’d be an effective vehicle for getting things done without going through the city’s bureaucracy.
“We wanted to have this for ourselves,” he said earlier this fall. “I care about what the merchants think, not somebody high up downtown.”
If Richmond was divided into districts, line drawers would, in theory, place common interest groups like the 23rd Street merchants inside of one district to give them direct voting power and a distinct voice on the council, said Mac Donald.
The idea is to compartmentalize the needs and frustrations of an entire community, one at a time, represented by one council seat accountable to that small constituency. Their voices would become one, loud and present, instead of another part of the city’s cacophony.
WHO SPEAKS FOR THE IRON TRIANGLE ?
Hugged between rail lines, Richmond’s Iron Triangle is one of the city’s most populous neighborhoods. Almost 13,000 mostly Latinos and African Americans pack into less than a square mile in the heart of the flatlands.
A near perfect equilateral—save for its Christmas tree stump that dips down to Ohio Avenue—the Iron Triangle is home to the city’s only hospital and a handful of parks and playlots. The BART station is tucked into the bottom right corner.
It’s cut off from the rest of town by Interstate 80, a thin stretch of industrial desert, and the converging iron tracks themselves, which account for, in part, the neighborhood’s name.
The people living between the tracks share something in common with the greater Latino community: the electorate, and in turn the council seats they choose, do not represent their population.
Despite the dense concentrations of residents, low-income neighborhoods of the city don’t put locals on the council. The Iron Triangle hasn’t had one in decades.
Most successful candidates come from the city’s edges. And the wealthier Richmond hill communities to the east and along the coast have cast a shadow over the flatlands, leaving tens of thousands without proportional representation—or, as in the case of the Iron Triangle, no representation at all.
Smith, the SFSU political scientist, said at-large systems tend to favor wealthier neighborhoods, where voter turnout is higher; more people who are registered to vote do indeed cast a ballot.
In the coastal precincts south of Freeway 580, voter turnout is 47 percent; 3,853 voters registered and 1,807 cast ballots.
In the Iron Triangle precincts turnout is 23 percent. Of 13,000 residents (8,000 of them Latinos) there are only about 2,900 total registered voters and fewer than 800 go to the polls.
Less than one in 16 people in the neighborhood actually vote.
Smith said it’s like a negative feedback loop, where a history of underrepresentation and failed candidates begets voter apathy, which, in turn, lowers the next new candidate’s chances.
“At-large elections preclude the representation of distinct ethnic and geographic areas,” he said. “And they’re less favored today in terms of good government.”
Charles Smith (no relation), an East Richmond activist, has called at-large elections “the antithesis of participatory democracy…the middle class freely manipulating poor people.”
It’s the same story in North Richmond, the notorious unincorporated slice of land, often lumped together with the Iron Triangle in conversations about drugs, violence, and poverty.
Reverend Kenneth Davis, who tried to run for City Council as a write-in candidate, said these neighborhoods are off the government’s radar because nobody holds a personal stake there. Seventy-four votes went to the council write-in on Tuesday.
“They don’t give a damn about us,” he said.
Just south in the Iron Triangle, another reverend has similar feelings of abandonment. “Many of these people are suffering in silence,” said Reverend Andre Shumake, an African American community leader and anti-violence activist. “There isn’t that voice advocating on their behalf on the council.”
“We deserve a voice.”
The more than 12,000 unheard in the Iron Triangle—unregistered residents and Nov. 4 no-shows—make up what would be constituencies for local candidates running in the district system. Political scientists call this “the base,” and underfunded grassroots candidates typically focus on building it.
But in the Iron Triangle, there’s not much to build on.
Still, it’s not uncommon for brave would-be representatives to emerge in the race, hopeful underdogs that have lived in Richmond’s toughest neighborhoods their whole life and made it. They are the success stories that try to inspire areas in desperate need of inspiration.
Tuesday, one such candidate from the Iron Triangle was on the council ballot.
Running for a long-term council seat, Dameion King had plans to change the way things are. But two weeks ago he knew he didn’t have much of a chance. “I’m realistic, but I want to get into the conversation,” the newcomer said. “There’s no education, no empowerment, and no dialogue.”
“If you don’t make an effort to educate the people, then you’ll have a deaf, dumb and blind community of people who don’t vote,” he said. “[Politicians] don’t want to inform and educate because that’s a sleeping giant, that’s an apathetic vote turned around.”
King got trounced, of course, hardly a blip on the electorate radar with 1,370 votes.
AT-LARGE VOTING HAS ROOTS IN IMMIGRATION BACKLASH
Most of today’s low-income residents are the grandchildren of Richmond’s immigrant waves of the 1910s and 1940s. And the sudden arrival of migrant workers from the South—including King’s grandparents—created a fierce political reaction.
“Bringing with them…socialist sympathies, immigrant workers helped spark a radical movement that challenged local business leadership,” writes Marilynn S. Johnson in The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in WWII.
In Richmond, those workers were southern sharecroppers, aggressively recruited by Henry Kaiser to drive his behemoth WWII shipbuilding endeavor at the port. The black immigrants were out from under Jim Crow, but still very much subordinate to white elites, who installed a political system that would ensure a concentration of power.
Johnson writes that cities all over the East Bay forbade the use of party labels on the ballot, “replacing the ward [district] system with citywide [at-large] elections.” This form of government, still in place today in Richmond (where it was first implemented in the 1909 charter) but abandoned by most of the Bay Area, “diluted the electoral power of ethnic and working-class voters.”
Betty Reid Soskin, a 93-year-old park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter National Park in the port, agrees that the city’s polarization is entrenched in its relatively brief history. Richmond’s modern birth was during the roaring 1940s, when the population boomed from just over 20,000 to almost 130,000.
“We’re still searching for an identity,” she said of the relatively young city. “It’s the story of California, but in Richmond it’s particularly stark.”
“We’re a collection of peoples with very little that binds us.”
Drawing lines might be Richmond’s best chance of coming together.
Districts elections divide the city—first by population, then by other criteria like “communities of interest” and language background—said Karin Mac Donald of the Statewide Database, which does redistricting for the state.
Then a small group of candidates, two or three from within that defined area, vie for one seat on the council. Usually the mayor, and possibly another seat, is still elected on an at-large basis.
“There are different ways to do it so everybody gets a neighborhood,” Mac Donald said. “Different ways to slice the pie.”
In her book Tyranny of the Majority, Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier compares the at-large and district systems to a high school prom committee:
• Ten students need to choose a five-songs playlist for prom. Six like rock. Four want hip-hop.
• Under normal (district) circumstances, the group might choose three rock and two hip-hop songs.
• If they voted using the winner-take-all voting (at-large) method, all five songs would be rock.
But some argue that the rest of the school might actually want rock. A Point Richmond resident who asked not to be named, said people voted in at-large “can better represent the needs of the whole city.”
It’s not a new sentiment.
District elections were put on the ballot once in 1991, lumped in with the other election reforms under “Measure K,” and ultimately rejected.
A Point Richmond political group spearheaded that measure at a time when the council was held by a majority of African American politicians from the old “South Richmond,” who fought tooth-and-nail to keep it from passing.
Since then, as the locus of political control shifted across the freeway, the conversation has floated around but never made it to the ballot again. The measure would be an amendment to the city’s charter, requiring either majority council support or about 4,200 signatures (10 percent of registered voters) to reach the ballot.
Twelve years ago, then councilman Tom Butt told The Richmond Post, “I don’t particularly like the idea…Whatever the city does should be what is best for the entire city not just parts of the city.”
The narrative of close-guarded power has repeated throughout the years—those elected on at-large basis defend the ladder they climbed.
Today, mayor-elect Butt, a Point Richmond native, still has misgivings. “I’m not sure there’s a significant group that’s not adequately represented,” he said. “You’d be setting up for a fight neighborhood on neighborhood and we don’t need to exacerbate that.”
Echoing some of its opponents, Douglas Johnson, president and founder of the research firm National Demographics Corp. said he’s noticed some divisive enclaves forming in cities that have recently dropped their at-large elections. “Districts can drive a wedge and pit neighborhoods against each other,” he said.
But current Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said districts could create “truer democracy.” Though it first merits conversations with the 35 neighborhood councils, she added. The small groups of civically engaged citizens can be powerful lobbying agents in the city.
Former Iron Triangle neighborhood council president Reverend Andre Shumake said districts “would see a groundswell of support” at the street level.
He cited the BART station and Macdonald Avenue revitalization projects as examples of rank-and-file, neighborhood council-led initiatives that have benefited all of Richmond.
“If you give each community someone exclusively responsible to them, that community will thrive,” Shumake said. “Then the whole city will thrive.”
Graphics by Jeremy C.F. Lin
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In 2008, citizens petitioned to change the WCCUSD at-large elections to district elections. The County Board of Ed opposed it. At the hearing, Superintendent Harter testified in opposition to the proposal, citing “such Balkanization would result in gridlock.”
Richmond is in a position to use proportional representation (PR) to elect their city council. Most democracies around the world use some form of PR to elect their leaders. Then if a constituency gets 50% of the votes it gets 50% of the seats and if a constituency gets 20% of the votes it gets 20% of the seats. That way the majority is protected and minorities get a voice and representation. An increase in the number of city council members would help create a more deversified council.
As a side note, there is something wrong with the data listed in the article as Richmond had less than 40,000 registered voters in May 2012.
In the 2012 primary (June), Richmond’s 53 precincts (not including North Richmond but including East Richmond Heights) reported 42,499 registered voters, according to data given to the Statewide Database from the Contra Costa County elections division. If you’d like, I’d be happy to email you the datasets.
Please do Brett. The May 21, 2012 Report of Registration from the California Secretary of State list Richmond with 39,888 registered voters.
As a side note, I should have mentioned that Proportional Representationrequires multi-member districts but in a small city like Richmond one city wide district would work best.
C T Weber is right that proportional representation is the world wide favorite among voting systems. However, SF, Berkeley, Oakland and San Leandro use a district system called the ranked ballot and instant runoff. District candidates are ranked by each voter, favorite gets a 1, next favorite a 2, etc. The top candidate, after ballots are counted, wins by a majority. No runoffs. At large elections using the ranked ballot and PR is the best way to give minority people and other views seats in proportion to their vote proportion, even tho the election is at large. Charter cities can use PR, but California needs a constitutional amendment to allow the large majority of cities, general law cities, to use the ranked ballot and PR or instant runoff. California also needs secretary of state approved software for counting multi candidates votes in a PR election.
Cambridge, MA, has used PR for council and school board since the late ’30s, hand counting ballots until the middle 1990s, when Cambridge was 96,000. Cambridge now uses low cost, high quality software to count ballots.
I would like to clarify.
“Flood basin” implies “flood zone” which my former neighborhood is not.
The reason the neighborhood floods is because of the ineffective tax-payer funded storm drain infrastructure.
I’m sorry, but Richmond politics has been polluted by the counter productivity of “clown acts” like Corky Booze’ and the “dubious” agenda of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. The abysmal turn out in this election wasn’t do to under representation, it was because of disgust.
During this school board election, there were the following 5 African-American candidates: Elaine Merriweather, Mister Phillips, Chester Stevens, Otheree Christian, and Ayana Kirkland-Young. None was elected, even though they comprised 50% of the 10 total candidates. I believe three of them are from Richmond. For the first time in many years, there will be no African-Americans on our school board. Currently, our board does contain two African-Americans trustees, that being Charles Ramsey (20 year term?) and Elaine Merriweather. It should be noted that until Val Cuevas takes her seat, there is currently no Latinos on our board. This, in a school district, that bases many of its decisions on race-derived data. Starting next year, our school board will consist of 4 white and 1 Latino members. It should also be noted that these school board members reside in Richmond (2) and El Cerrito (3). There are no members from Pinole, Hercules, Kensington, or San Pablo. I never viewed our board members in terms of race. I never saw Charles Ramsey, Elaine Merriweather, or Tony Thurmond as “black” trustees. If anything, I saw them as candidates who were not from my city of Hercules, that geographical representation was more important to me. Our previous Latino candidate, Antonio Medrano, in my opinion, was an advocate for all kids in all cities, but he made it clear he also represented the Latino community. African-American Hercules candidate Chester Stevens included the achievement gap as part of his campaign platform, that he has always been an advocate for African-American students. African-American Hercules candidate Ayana Kirkland-Young shared with me that she believed there sometimes was too much emphasis on issues pertaining to race, that some candidates gave excessive attention to this element. When I attended some Site Council meetings, I observed that the elected body did not always mirror the population being served, yet the SSC was using race-derived data to make important decisions pertaining to their school, including the Site Plan for Student Achievement (SPSA). I wanted to blurt out, “Hey, how come Asians and whites are making decisions for African-Americans and Latinos!?” I share Raquel Donoso’s sentiment that our school board should be diverse. The same goes with our SSCs. Do you think it matters? Is geographical representation more important? Does our education system, specifically the WCCUSD, place too much emphasis on race?
And let’s not forget the many other groups not seen on our school board, including Asians. In this race, first generation Asian candidate Peter Chau scored 8% of the total votes placed.
It’s a really good point, Giorgio. I originally set out to expand the scope to include the school board. I went out canvassing with Otheree Christian, an Iron Triangle resident and current president of the neighborhood council. Geographical vs. ethnic/racial representation is at the heart of the issue, I think, because they are so often linked, especially in Richmond–a point I tried to make in this article. It merits further discussion, especially in regard to the school board, which Andres Soto and others told me has more representation problems than Richmond’s council.
I look forward to any follow-up you do, Brett, on this topic. Here are the minutes to the 2008 County hearing on the proposal to modify the WCCUSD elections.
I surely hope that commenters here aren’t suggesting that we elect people based on the color of their skin, their gender, the country of their origin, where they pray, what they sleep with or what party they’re affiliated with.
I fought too long and too hard for EQUAL rights for all for people to step in to demand that we segregate and discriminate against people once again.
Perhaps candidates for the School Board have failed to get elected because no one wanted to buy what they were selling. Let’s keep in mind that out of 104,000 voters in the District fewer than two tenths of one percent of them were at the candidate forums to actually see the candidates. Most of the Blacks failed to send out any kind of mailers that showed the color of their skin. So how is it that we might think they were being discriminated against because of the color of their skin? How was the public supposed to know what their ethnicity is?
And is someone really suggesting that only a Latino/Black/Lesbian/Muslim/Whatever can properly represent people like them? Doesn’t this just validate why people would remain segregated? I don’t buy it.
I do not see the election results as being discriminatory. I’m thinking of voices on our board that are representative of our school district. So much of our focus in education is placed on race. At one point, Charles Ramsey called the district on the very low benchmarks that it set for African-Americans, that he disagreed with this lower bar for African-American students. He cited his daughters as examples of African-American students who were far above those benchmarks. This is just one example of why we need to hear all voices on our school board. Much of the decisions of the education system is based on race. Sure, Todd Groves could have made the same comment/assessment about the low bar that the WCCUSD had set, but it helped that Charles could cite his own personal experiences, that he had two data points sitting at home, doing their homework, excelling in school. Of course, his kids were not residing in the Iron Triangle, so maybe the bigger issue is wards/districts. My grandfather was an “alderman” in Chicago. He represented his geographical neighborhood, but at the same time, that also meant he represented a certain number of Italians.
How to smell spell Hyp O Crite “Perhaps candidates for the School Board have failed to get elected because no one wanted to buy what they were selling.” I hope Chevron release you from PAC’s. Now that your propaganda causes company to lose Big money, except in the matter of one particular school board member.
Bill to Strengthen California Voting Rights Act Approved by State Assembly – SB 1365
Posting this letter from the desk of Gov. Brown
BILL NUMBER: SB 1365
VETOED DATE: 09/30/2014
To the Members of the California State Senate:
I am returning Senate Bill 1365 without my signature.
This bill would apply the rules governing at-large elections in the
California Voting Rights Act to challenges related to district-based
While there is progress to be made, the federal Voting Rights Act and
the California Voting Rights Act already provide important
safeguards to ensure that the voting strength of minority communities
is not diluted.
Senator Padilla has been a champion of election reform. I look
forward to working with him to ensure that voting rights are
Edmund G. Brown Jr.
Don’t let out of town leftists come to Richmond and tell us what to do and how to vote. they do not care about Richmond they only care about trying to change our constitution to create a socialist nation, and will pitch lies like “Ranked Choice Voting” and “Proportional Representation” to get that socialized state. Don’t let the leftists from the east coast and San Francisco and Berkeley turn us into a lab for their socliazed nightmare.
Of the 41,778 registered voters in Richmond:
African American: 11,536 27.6%
Latino: 8.010 19.2%
Asian: 3,721 8.9%
Sorry, but my database doesn’t actually list Whites.
Should we add:
Other: 18,511 44.3%
If we split the city on districts or wards, do we do this based on population or based on voters in a ward?
Do we consider other criteria such as gender, sexual orientation, religion?
Good points, Don. From what I understand, the districts are drawn by actual population, not registered voters, though that data becomes one of the secondary considerations.
Data analysis firms, like the ones mentioned in the article, actually do a “racially polarized voting analysis” to see if certain ethnicities and races are indeed disenfranchised and in what areas. This initial analysis is in adherence to the California Voting Rights Act.
Then they have to adhere to Section 2 of the Federal Voting Rights Act, which encompasses several considerations: continuity (district is together not scattered), communities of interest (like the 23rd Street Merchants Assoc), language background, common projects (a group who’s building a dog park should be in the same district), and “compactness” (districts should look like fists, not open hands, which many line drawers have ignored because it’s often at odds with other criteria). There are other considerations, I’m sure, as well.
Karin Mac Donald of Statewide Database told me: “Effective redistricting is really about everybody not just about who votes. It’s about drawing a district in which a minority can actually elect a representative.”
People often compare it to the architecture of the electoral college, which acts as a buffer for states, empowering the smaller ones. Districts’ advocates say that they would likewise empower neighborhoods and yes, marginalized ethnicities.
At the beginning of the article, author Brett Murphy suggests that the reason Jason Myers couldn’t get the storm sewers fixed is that his neighborhood doesn’t have a representative on the City Council. I think that’s the wrong way to look at the problem. For one thing, as Murphy acknowledges elsewhere in this article, district elections encourage pork barrel politics. For another, storms sewers might be a major issue for Myers and his immediate neighbors, but he cares about other things as well, policy questions that are city wide and even global in scope. And his allies on those questions don’t necessarily live in his neighborhood. They might be scattered all over town.
That said, the current form of at large elections (vote for N) is even worse than districts. By design, it over-represents the largest group in the community and under-represents everyone else. At least districts can represent some groups of like-minded voters who live together in the same neighborhoods. Ethnic groups often (but not always) fit that model.
But there are forms of at large elections that represent everyone more fairly than either districts or vote-for-N. Ranked choice voting is the best one for non-partisan local elections. For more on this, see http://www.fairvote.org/reforms/fair-representation-voting/ and http://www.cfer.org.
Santa Clarita recently settled a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit by agreeing to switch to cumulative voting, a semi-proportional system that allows electoral minorities (and majorities) to elect their fair share of councilmembers without dividing the city into districts. The discussion of what electoral system would best serve Richmond should go beyond just districts versus at-large plurality, and should include cumulative voting as well as fully proportional systems that guarantee, not just allow, electoral minorities (and majorities) their fair share of representation without the Balkanization of districts.
I give talks on these topics and would be happy to come to Richmond to give one. You can contact me via http://www.cfer.org.
[…] Published on Richmond Confidential: Has at-large voting outlived its usefulness in Richmond? […]
Wonderful article. Thank you. In Albany, the Charter Review Committee has been researching different methods. It has found any method is better than at large winner take all for providing representation for each large voter group.
Cumulative voting is a good method, as the last commenter notes. Ranked choice voting at large is even better because it eliminates the problem of votes spreading too thinly among similar candidates (vote splitting). This system has been used in Cambridge, MA, since the 1940s. It was used in far more cities in the last century, but was repealed, often because it resulted in election of non-whites for the first time.
One of the best aspects of these methods is that they let voters choose for themselves how to organize rather than being organized into districts from above by someone else. In other words, they let “voters choose their politicians instead of politicians choosing their voters” as they would in drawing districts.
Still, given the voter turnout variation across Richmond, it appears some districting might be useful. Perhaps a single member district in the Point, a two member district in the hills and a three member district in the flats? This might provide the best of both districts and a diversity of representation in the multi-member districts.
[…] This story originally appeared on KQED News Associate site Richmond Confidential. […]
I fully concur. We need district elections. Richmond is already in danger of becoming the next Ferguson, MO. The numbers say it all. It is time to have adequate representation from all sectors and interest groups in the population.
The people of Richmond are not truly represented by the Chevron crowd, nor by the RPA. Already a hefty liability insurance requirement for events is going to make it harder for people of the rainbow to have our public events, focusing on our culture and political perspectives in this city. The liberal experiment where a group of well-meaning social activists and theorists try to reshape a city into their vision of the good and just society failed in the last century. It was called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The first and second Internationals consisted of the best liberal minds in Europe and America who were in attendance. We need SELF-DETERMINATION in Richmond. That will start with DISTRICT ELECTIONS.
[…] Has at-large voting outlived its usefulness in Richmond? […]