In January, the Santa Ana City Council shortsightedly declined to put a measure on the ballot proposing district-based elections in place of the city’s current system, in which city council members are elected at-large (voted upon by the entire city) but must live in a specific district. Not only was their equivocation confusing, with several council members quoted as saying that the people should decide yet refusing to send the issue to voters, but it was unnecessary. The City Council can and should choose to adopt district elections in a legislative session, avoiding delay and the waste of resources.
Over the past four years, several of Orange County’s large cities have made the switch to a district election system, in an attempt to avoid or settle lawsuits brought under the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) that alleged disenfranchisement of Latino voters. Santa Ana, now the largest city in California to lack districts, exists in limbo, using a system in which representatives must live in certain wards of the city but are elected at-large. Like many attempts at compromise, the ward system leaves no one happy. It doesn’t take money out of politics, it doesn’t improve accountability or provide true neighborhood representation, it makes it difficult for grassroots candidates to run viable campaigns, and it doesn’t protect Santa Ana against CVRA lawsuits.
One of the strongest arguments in favor of district elections is their ability to lessen the influence of money in local politics. In a district system, a candidate only has to reach out to the voters within his or her district, significantly lessening the need for expensive mailers, robocalls, and campaign consultants. This levels the playing field for community based candidates who don’t have independent wealth and don’t want to align themselves with special interest groups who can underwrite their campaigns.
2016 saw the Santa Ana Police Union pour $250,000 into three city council elections. The newly elected council members then promptly voted to dismiss a city official whom the police union publicly opposed. Santa Ana – its voters, residents, and representatives – should think hard about the role they want political action committees to have in deciding their city’s policies.
District elections improve accountability, placing councilmembers closer to their constituents. Santa Ana would also guarantee that city council members are representing wards who actually elected them. While the ward system ensures that a council member lives in each area of the city, it doesn’t ensure that the residents of those areas have a representative of their choice. For example, in ward three in 2012, Angelica Amezcua wasn’t the first (or second) choice of ward three residents, yet under Santa Ana’s system she was chosen to represent ward three by the entire city. This is the reason why ward systems like Santa Ana’s don’t meet the standards of the California Voting Rights Act.
January’s discussion started off discussing these topics – money in politics, true neighborhood representation – but was quickly derailed into debated over other electoral-system issues. Should they extend the residence requirement to be longer than 30 days, so you don’t see certain politically-aspiring individuals turn up with their suitcases in your neighborhood every other October? Should the City Council members be full-time compensated positions, so they have more time (and more money) to study policy issues? These aren’t bad questions, but they obscured the point: it’s time for Santa Ana to grow up and get an elections system appropriate for a city of its size and diversity, with real districts, and real democratic representation.
Santa Ana’s council members can handle this issue now, by adopting district elections and joining the rest of large California cities in offering their residents fair representation.
Clara Turner is a research and policy analyst with Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development (OCCORD).
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