Recently the Orange County Board of Supervisors released a six-month plan to redraw Supervisorial districts. Redistricting occurs every Census cycle to keep district population sizes the same and keep “communities of interest” (those with similar backgrounds or interests) in the same district.
Here’s the problem with districts: they hold our officials less accountable.
First, under a process known as “gerrymandering,” local politicians in Orange County vote on district boundaries themselves. Gerrymandering means that Supervisors, city councilors, and school board trustees get to shift the lines of a district and maximize every chance they or their party will win in future elections. Many have accused the Board of Supervisors of protecting their seats via redistricting in 2011, and nothing has changed to prevent this from happening again. In a democracy, voters choose their officials. Gerrymandering flips the power so incumbents, people in office, choose their voters.
One solution could be independent redistricting commissions, which California has held for state-level elections since 2010. Here, nonpartisan officials (in this case, citizens) lead the redistricting process to leave out partisan politics.
But districts are not just manipulable; they also leave races less competitive. In the past several decades, with the passage of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) of 2001, lawyers have served municipalities with a legal request to shift to districts from “at-large,” or citywide, elections. The CVRA empowered a cottage industry to sue governments with few minorities in office. Their demand: that a district be drawn with under-represented groups in the majority- a majority-minority district. The City of Tustin received a demand letter last year, and the City of Irvine recently voted to defy compliance with the letter it received.
While the goals of this movement were good, research suggests the shift to districts has made elections less competitive. For example, on average, barely 2 candidates run in each district, compared to 4.5 in at-large races. Research has also suggested that, at best, councils have increased minority officeholding by an average of 10%. That suggests that up to half of all cities have experienced no change from reform at all. Meanwhile, voters have fewer choices at the ballot box when they are siloed into smaller communities, and politicians have no incentive to care about people in other districts.
In short, districts are myopic.
We want rules that integrate and diversify our politics; districts calcify cities in the segregated state they are today. Minority communities also ought to have a say in creating a governing majority, not a token seat from one district. We have to put rules in place that give every group (race, gender, religion, creed) equal opportunity to wield real power. We cannot keep the status quo, but we cannot trade one bad system for another.
So is there a better way?
New York City has recently conducted its first ranked-choice voting (RCV) election for its Democratic primary. This is a step in the right direction: voters can list preferences (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th) for an office, and you can elect people citywide with this system. But the tallying process is so complicated that it may take weeks to learn the winner. That process also eliminates voters who do not rank multiple candidates (in a process known as “ballot exhaustion”), which means some people’s votes do not count for the final outcome.
Instead, there’s an even-better method with local roots: Rank and Add. In this system, you rank candidates, each ranking earns a point value, and you add those points up to get the winner(s). This process gave Mike Trout his MVP Awards, and schools from the University of Michigan to Harvard host elections this way.
With Rank and Add, every voter’s voice counts more. First, politicians have an incentive to seek out everyone’s support, not just their base. Every preference has a point value, so those with broader support win elections. Second, once in office, officials have to care about their voters holistically. After all, everyone can decide to rank someone higher, lower, or not at all in the next election. Third, no one has to vote for our two major parties. Winning 2nd, 3rd, even 4th and 5th rankings can give newcomers fighting shots against organized, powerful special interests.
Rank and Add lets people vote for all the candidates they like citywide, and with points, they can share how much they like one over another. There is no risk your points do not count or impact the state of an election. As a result, Rank and Add produces higher turnout, better competition, and more consensus-building than any other system. It even allows communities that vote as a group, minorities included, to win equal representation. Everyone earns a seat at the table, and incumbents have to win trust from voters in order to come back again.
The past year has exposed areas where Orange County needs to change. But there’s one change that impacts them all: the chance to reshape our democracy. Orange County, let’s choose a better system and fix our politics. Let’s center trust in our elections. Let’s start that movement with Rank and Add.
Brandon Martinez is the Co-Founder and President of Voters Choose, a youth-led nonprofit that conducts research, education, and advocacy for electoral reform and civic engagement. He lives and works remotely in Tustin, and he graduated in 2020 from Harvard University with a degree in government. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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