Earlier this month, Santa Clarita settled a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit, and in doing so became the first city in California to embrace innovative election rules that could point the way to a more representative politics.
The lawsuit, filed last year, grew out of major demographic changes in the city. Not only had Santa Clarita grown by more than 60% since 1990; it had also seen a sharp increase in the city’s non-white population, which went from 31% to 44% over a 10-year period, with Latinos now making up almost a third of the city. But as the city’s ethnic composition changed, the makeup of the five-person City Council did not. Today’s council remains entirely Caucasian.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs argued that Santa Clarita’s method for electing the City Council was the crucial factor preventing racial minority representation. Santa Clarita council seats are “at large,” meaning that all voters in the city can cast ballots for all open seats, and that council members represent the city as a whole rather than a smaller district within the city. If three seats, say, are open, voters can choose up to three candidates, but they can only cast one of their votes per candidate.
This system allows a cohesive group with a bare majority of citywide votes — white voters, say — to win 100% of the representation. If voting patterns are polarized along racial lines, as the plaintiffs argued is the case in Santa Clarita, bloc voting leads to monopoly control for the dominant racial group.
In most voting rights settlements, the city agrees to scrap citywide elections in favor of elections by geographic districts. District lines are drawn to maximize opportunities to elect minority candidates, and voters can only cast ballots in their own districts. That method has been effective at diversifying elected bodies in many jurisdictions.
But in Santa Clarita, minority voters are too geographically spread out to benefit from such a remedy. And, even when effective, district elections result in representation for minority voters living in the “majority-minority” districts, but minorities outside those districts don’t gain representation. Moreover, districts also introduce costs and difficulties associated with a decennial redrawing of the district lines.
The City Council in Santa Clarita has opted for a third way: conducting future elections using a method known as cumulative voting. The method gives both majority and minority viewpoints an opportunity to elect representatives, but accomplishes this without having to gerrymander district lines. Here’s how it works.
Candidates still run citywide, and each voter still has as many votes as seats being contested. So if three seats are open, each voter can cast three votes. But with cumulative voting, residents can cast more than one vote for a single candidate if they wish.
With three contested seats, a voter could go the traditional route, voting for three different candidates. Or she could put all three of her votes on a single candidate, or put two votes on one candidate and another vote on a second candidate. Voters get to use their votes however they like.
In that way, a voter can express a strong preference for a particular candidate. If your issue is, say, more parking in downtown, you could cast all your votes for the candidate who has promised to expand parking. Or, if you feel the council needs Latino representation, you could spend all three votes on a Latino candidate.
This system has been used to settle voting rights cases in dozens of U.S. cities, and it has allowed both majority and minority perspectives to win fair representation without gerrymandering. Amarillo, Texas, for example, saw its first Latino and African American candidates elected to the school board after cumulative voting came to the city.
Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, says the option makes sense in certain situations. “Cumulative voting is a choice worth considering in cities where the population is too small to practically create districts, or where using districts may not make sense given how communities live.”
But why stop there? Illinois used a system of cumulative voting to elect members of its state House of Representatives for more than 100 years, and the system resulted in racial as well as political diversity, with more moderates elected and a reduction in polarization.
In Santa Clarita, the first cumulative voting election is scheduled to take place in November 2016. Other cities would do well to consider it. Even the city of Los Angeles, with a population that is more than 70% non-white and a City Council that doesn’t come close to reflecting that diversity, might consider the option. It might also work well at the state level, where Latinos are nearly 40% of the state’s population yet have only 21% of state legislative seats.
What started as a bitterly contested lawsuit in Santa Clarita could end up providing a model for achieving diversity throughout California. And nobody would have to gerrymander a single district.
Steven Hill is the author of “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy” and “Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age.”