Jim Harris: Will Districted Elections Bring Fair Representation?Jim Harris August 26, 2018 0 COMMENTS
Two years ago the Santa Clarita City Council agreed to allow cumulative rather than at-large voting for city council elections after the city conceded to settle a lawsuit they thought they couldn’t win. However, the judge who approved the settlement suddenly pulled the rug out from under the city and the plaintiffs.
Must Santa Clarita suffer from lack of representation among its residents because a judge did not challenge an opinion after he agreed to a settlement?
While Mission Viejo will be the first city in California to have cumulative voting, dozens of other cities have switched to districted voting conforming to the 2002 California Voting Rights Act. These cities have settled with plaintiffs and switched from at-large, citywide voting to districted systems, in which each member of the city council represents a distinct geographic area of the city.
Cumulative voters get ballots with all the candidates listed. If there are five candidates, the voter gets to vote five times. The voter can use all her votes to vote for one candidate or she can split her vote. This strengthens the voting power of minority voters who feel a certain candidate or candidates would best help them. Conversely, this system could increase the voting power of those already in power. In some cities, it has led to the trading of votes.
“Experts have mixed opinions on cumulative voting, and there’s no definitive research on whether the system actually increases diversity in government,” said David Rausch, a West Texas A&M political science professor.
Rausch fears voter might not trust cumulative voting because most voters are used to one vote per candidate. However, he believes the system benefits voters by giving them more control. Rauch added that voters “have the flexibility to cast ballots as they would with an at-large ballot, or an option to put their extra votes behind a single candidate.”
Ranked choice voting (RCV) has also been accepted by the courts and could be implemented in Santa Clara, California by 2020. If the proposed plan is adopted by the city’s voters, Santa Clara could be the first California city to use multi-seat RCV. Ranked choice voting would also be used for offices elected citywide including the seats of mayor, city clerk and police chief.
The Santa Clara Committee considered at-large elections and various district plans, and determined that Santa Clara was too diverse and integrated for single-member district elections. They thought that the RCV multi-seat plan best for their city.
Ranked choice voting (RCV) is more complicated, but considered the fairest and most accurate type of voting system by FairVote, a nonpartisan group advocating electoral reforms. In ranked choice voting systems, voters can rank as many candidates as they want in order of preference. “Candidates do best when they attract a strong core of first-choice support while also reaching out for second and even third choices,” according to Fair Vote. “When used as an ‘instant runoff’ to elect a single candidate like a mayor or a governor, RCV helps elect a candidate that better reflects the support of a majority of voters.”
Not everyone is on board for RCV. “It is supposed to foster more dialogue, and it gave us less,” said Jeff Skrenes for Twin Cities Daily Planet. “It is not a one-size-fits-all mechanism for every voting scenario.”
Some currently defend the at-large system in Santa Clarita because Dante Acosta won a city council seat and Bill Miranda replaced Acosta when he moved on the California State Assembly. However, Santa Clarita’s at-large voting system is still controlled by the same circle of people living in one part of the city. Having a few token minorities does not make Santa Clarita’s city council truly representative of the growing population of the city.
Perhaps it is time to refile under the California Voting Rights Act against the city – this time using RCV as the vehicle for true inclusion and representation.