Two decades ago, Santa Ana was at a crossroads.
The Orange County seat was two-thirds Latino, but in citywide elections white Republicans candidates dominated. After a long battle, the city was eventually broken into six council wards, and today all are represented by Latinos.
Anaheim faces a similar demographic shift now, and many see it at the root of recent angry protests over the fatal police shootings of two Latino men. According to the latest U.S. census, Anaheim is now majority minority. About 52% of the city's 336,000 residents are Latino, but only a handful of Latinos have ever won council seats.
Anaheim is also the largest city in California that still elects council members at large, meaning council members are elected on a citywide basis. Like Santa Ana in the 1990s, Anaheim is now under growing pressure to switch to district voting, which usually makes it easier for minority groups to win council seats because voting is broken up into smaller geographic segments. The City Council could decide next week to put the question on the November ballot.
Anaheim is just the latest California city to reach this threshold, where traditional minority groups attain majority status in population but still struggle to get more political power.
This gap is especially pronounced in cities with large immigrant communities, where many residents cannot vote. Only half of the voting-age Latinos in Anaheim are citizens, according to census data.
Compton recently agreed to switch to district voting, a response to a voting rights lawsuit. The city is two-thirds Latino, but the council is traditionally made up of blacks. Civil rights activists have sought the same shift in a number of other California cities in recent years, including West Covina, Tulare and Visalia.
District elections in Anaheim could dramatically change the political dynamic. A neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis of census data by The Times shows that the city is deeply segregated along ethnic lines.
There is a strong white majority in the city's newer, more affluent east side, including picturesque Anaheim Hills, an enclave nearly physically separated from the rest of the city. About 58% of the residents are white. The area has a median income of more than $100,000.
Latinos dominate in the central core of Anaheim generally between the 5 and 55 freeways, an area marked by barrios and dense apartments. Here, 68% of the residents are Latino and incomes fall below the Orange County average. Pockets of this community have poverty rates exceeding 25%, the analysis found.
The western section of Anaheim, near Disneyland, represents a third demographic. This area is the most diverse section of the city, where Latinos make up about 51% of the population. The majority of the city's blacks and Asians live there.
Census records show a dramatic disparity in education.
Nearly half the adults age 25 and above in the east have graduated from college, with one in six holding a master's degree or higher. Fewer than one in five in the central and western areas have college degrees, and about the same number were high school dropouts.
Anaheim Councilwoman Lorri Galloway believes district elections "will totally change the way in which the city of Anaheim is governed."
Anaheim's white minority is better organized and more politically active, and therefore able to sway elections under the current system, she said.
"People say, 'The Hills come out and vote,' " Galloway added. "The flatlands, you're not sure; depends on the issue."
Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait said he too supports the creation of voting districts, pointing to the expense of running for office in an at-large system in a 50-square-mile city.
"You have to get votes from a population of 350,000 as opposed to 50,000," he said. "I think the district elections will connect people closer to their representative.... I think there's areas of our city that frankly deserve more attention."
In mid-July -- before the shootings and the protests -- the public was invited to a workshop on whether to replace Anaheim's at-large election system with districts.
"The people who spoke for it were Hispanic, the people who spoke against it were not," Galloway said. "It was the big elephant in the room nobody wanted to speak about. But it was true. There was an [ethnic] divide."
Bardis Vakili, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has sued the city to force it to adopt voting districts, sees a direct link between the recent protests and the election system.
"This bubbling over of anger, it's symptomatic of the larger problem, which is this overwhelming feeling of being dis-empowered," Vakili said.
At-large elections remain popular with some Anaheim residents, however. They argue that the current system ensures that the candidates focus on the big issues facing the entire city, not simply neighborhood concerns. They also worry that carving out districts could lead to fiefdoms.
"I think it could be the most harmful thing we could do," said Anaheim conservative activist and blogger Cindy Ward.
"We lose our voice with districting, we don't gain it. It just kicks the door wide open for corruption and deal making."
She said that the candidates who win Anaheim elections are consistently those who line up with resort and public safety endorsements, and there's nothing to guarantee a neighborhood candidate could win an election without such backing.
"If they took back their power by voting and getting their neighborhoods to vote, that's where the power is," Ward said.
"It's not breaking the city into districts."
Voting is one piece of a larger debate in Anaheim about whether the city's poor Latino neighborhoods are getting a fair share of city services.
Critics claim that wealthy areas enjoy a disproportionate amount of city resources. According to figures compiled by the group Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development, Anaheim Hills has 11.6 parks and 1.8 libraries per 50,000 residents. In the western part of the city, there are just 0.4 libraries and 4.6 parks per 50,000 residents, the group says.
City officials strongly dispute that the east side gets more services. On Friday, the city produced its own spreadsheet that showed central Anaheim received four times more funding for parks and libraries than the east.
Maria Rosales, 45, lives in the heavily Latino neighborhood of Ponderosa Park. She said she was ecstatic last year when officials asked for her input on how to refurbish the area's park, which she said lacks space for her children to play. But she said the plans never materialized.
"My kids have to stay home and do nothing," Rosales said. Of city officials, she said: "They make me feel like a person who doesn't have a voice, or a right."
Mariana Rivera, 33, lives in the Guinida Lane neighborhood, the heavily Latino area close to where police shot and killed Joel Acevedo, 21, who officers said fired at them during a foot chase in July.
It is a neighborhood where kids play in the streets, and Rivera said residents have been fighting for speed bumps for years. She said the city has told her it has other priorities.
"It sounds very simple, but it makes us feel like we don't have a voice, like our vote doesn't matter," she said.
Times staff writers Sandra Poindexter and Mike Anton contributed to this report.