Orange recently became the latest Orange County city to abandon at-large elections in favor a system where candidates represent specific neighborhoods.
The Orange City Council voted April 23 to transition to a district-based election system in 2020, reversing its original opposition in response to a lawsuit brought by voting rights activists.
Orange City Atty. Gary Sheatz advised the council to avoid spending millions of dollars on legal fees, providing Santa Monica as an example of a city in an expensive legal fight to keep its at-large system.
Orange County cities’ transition to vote-by-district elections has seen mixed results in increasing diversity on the councils. Six of 13 cities with vote-by-district elections have, for example, successfully elected one or more Latinos.
Communities that adopt vote-by-district elections often see immediate success in electing a minority candidate but in some cases, it can take a couple of election cycles to develop a bench of qualified, eager candidates, he said.
“Often when there is a long history of a candidate not being elected it can discourage participation by that minority group,” Barreto said. “What’s the point if your candidate is going to get blocked?”
Kevin Shenkman, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the Santa Monica case, filed a similar lawsuit against Orange in February on behalf of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project and Orange resident Luis Ortiz-Franco.
Orange administrators will hire a demographer to analyze the city’s voting population and draft a map that complies with the California Voting Rights Act. A schedule of public meetings where community members can weigh in on the map’s boundaries is also expected.
“As we begin to look at the process, I think it’s important for [residents] to realize from our responsibility as council people that we want it to be as transparent as it can be, we want it to be as impartial as it can be,” Mayor Pro Tem Mike Alvarez said.
Orange resident Brian Lochrie said he is opposed to the vote-by-district system, and he hopes the City Council will establish a committee to help draft the map’s boundaries.
“It offends me that people think Orange isn’t representative of all ethnicities because we have been for a long time,” Lochrie said. “It disappoints me that it’s come to this level, and I think it’s being done purely for political reasons, and that’s highly disappointing to me because that’s not what Orange is about.”
Shenkman said Orange residents approached him two years ago about filing a voting rights lawsuit against their city but he has been consumed with court proceedings in the Santa Monica case.
He sued Orange in February after two significant events.
First, voters elected two non-Latino candidates as at-large representatives in the 2018 General Election. Then, the Orange City Council decided to spend $470,000 on a special election in November to fill a vacancy left when voters promoted Mark Murphy from councilman to mayor. Supporters of Betty Valencia argue she should have been appointed by the City Council because she was the first runner-up in the November 2018 election.
At that time, Murphy and other council members said voters should decide who fills the seat, not council members.
But Shenkman said the move was unusual.
“Cities opt to avoid a special election because of cost and tend to appoint someone,” he said. “The natural choice is whoever came up short in the last election.”
Matt Barreto, a professor of political science and Chicano/a studies at UCLA, said at-large electoral systems have effectively kept minorities off of city councils and school boards because candidates typically have to earn at least 51% of the vote.
Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the nonprofit Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said cities with district elections tend to see more income and geographic diversity on their councils. But sometimes the method of creating districts doesn’t match the intent.
In Placentia voters reelected two white councilmen last year after the city adopted a district map in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent a lawsuit from Saenz’s organization. One of the two incumbents lives in a district that includes a predominately Latino neighborhood.
Now MALDEF is suing Placentia to change the map’s boundaries, partly because the predominately Latino district isn’t contiguous, Saenz said.
“You ought to be able to drive from one end to another without leaving the district,” he said. “We don’t believe the district has enough of a Latino majority to be successful in electing a Latino candidate.”
A vote-by-district election’s effectiveness should also be measured by more than the ethnicity of elected candidates, Saenz said, adding that it’s more important for them to represent constituents’ political wills and values.
In Costa Mesa, the change had an immediate effect. After going to district-based elections, the city elected its first council members with Hispanic heritage: Manuel Chavez, Andrea Marr and Arlis Reynolds.
“That inspires me and humbles me at the same time,” Chavez said in an interview with the Daily Pilot. “It makes me want to do my best and work my hardest, because I know I can make a big impact immediately.”
San Juan Capistrano was immediately successful in electing a Latino candidate after transitioning from an at-large election system. In 2016, Councilman Sergio Farias ran in a newly-created district where 44% of the eligible voters are Latino in a city where 75% of all voters are white.
He says the biggest advantage of running in a district of only 2,000 homes was he was able to knock on just about every door.
“It helped because, I think, financially I’m not wealthy so I rely on contributions and having a smaller district allows you to run a campaign on a much smaller budget,” Farias said.
As the council member for one of the most densely populated neighborhoods of San Juan Capistrano, Farias heard from voters about the shortage of parking.
“Yes, I’m Latino and I’m very proud of my heritage and my ethnicity, but I make my decisions just like everybody else,” Farias said. “Luckily, I’ve been able to establish myself as someone who doesn’t just care deeply about my district but the entire city.”
Daniel Langhorne is a contributor to TimesOC. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielLanghorne.
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