Irvine is the latest Orange County city to consider switching to district elections and expand its city council from five to seven seats – a move Anaheim was forced to make nine years ago in a legal settlement.
Like Anaheim, Irvine was threatened with a lawsuit in 2021, alleging the current system disenfranchises minority voters and candidates.
Yet Irvine politicians largely sat on those threats until May 2022, when officials began the process of asking city voters if they wanted to make the switch.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Irvine City Council members narrowly approved the city’s first proposed map for district elections. It now heads for voter approval in the March election.
In a district election system, voters only get to pick one candidate in the district they live in and the mayor. In the city’s current at-large system, voters get to vote for how many seats are up for grabs – for example, if three seats are up for election, voters get to pick three candidates.
Irvine, home to roughly 313,000 residents, is currently the largest city in Orange County that doesn’t have a district election system. It’s also the largest city in OC represented by five council members.
Next week, San Clemente is also set to consider adopting their first district elections after legal threats.
A couple Orange County cities have recently been fighting back against the legal threats, similar to cities throughout years that lost in court and were forced to ask voters if they wanted to make the switch.
Irvine council members narrowed their focus down to two maps: Map 151, which was drawn up by residents, and Map 163, which was drawn by the National Demographers Corporation, a mapping contractor the city hired to help with the transition to district elections.
Both maps set up six districts, with the mayor still being elected by the entire city.
Map 151, which council members ultimately selected in a 3-2 vote, received strong support from public commenters, who praised it for holding many of the city’s existing “villages,” together, which were neighborhoods designed by developers to share many of the same shopping malls and other common areas.
“It’s the least objectionable map and it’s the most popular map,” said Councilman Larry Agran. “That’s the map we want to go with, cause it expresses the will of the people.”
Councilwoman Tammy Kim spoke out against the city’s chosen map, saying it packed too many Asian voters into two districts and took away their voting power throughout the rest of the city.
“This is a form of gerrymandering,” Kim said.
According to the map’s demographic breakdown, while over 60% of the residents in districts 1 and 2 identify as Asian American, every other district saw Asian American voters representing anywhere from just under half the total population to less than 40%.
According to the US Census Bureau, Asian Americans make up 42.9% of the city’s entire population and are the city’s second largest demographic after white.
Similar concerns surfaced in Fullerton’s 2016 switch to district elections in a move that stemmed from a legal settlement. That year, politicians adopted a map that splintered Downtown Fullerton – raising concerns it diluted that community’s vote.
When asked whether the city’s chosen map would violate any laws against gerrymandering, Justin Levitt of National Demographics, said all the maps they were looking at met the legal criteria for consideration.
“From a legal standpoint, all the maps comply with the federal voting rights act,” Levitt said. “The law gives us the flexibility to look at both options.”
Councilwoman Kathleen Treseder also brought up concerns with Map 151, sharing concerns that it would split up UC Irvine students and voters between two districts.
Treseder is also a professor of ecology at UC Irvine, and added she was “disappointed,” with how the districting process had played out, and that she was concerned council members had gone out of their way to pick a map where they were all in separate districts.
“I don’t think our voters want us to make a decision based on that,” Treseder said.
Treseder tried to gather a consensus around Map 165, which was extremely similar to the city’s chosen map but made some slight adjustments along the borders, but failed to pick up support.
Now, the map goes to the ballot for a final approval by the voters during the March primary election, and if it’s approved, it’ll be used in the 2024 council elections that November, guaranteeing at least three new council members joining the dais.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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