Map 151 selected by Irvine City Council as representing new election districts. Credit: National Demographics

I write to oppose the current effort to divide the city into voting districts, which the City Council argues will give a greater voice to minorities in elections, ostensibly to comply with the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). According to the City Council, under the current system of at-large voting, “Councilmembers and the Mayor are directly accountable to the electorate and must constantly balance the views of individuals and groups with the needs of the entire community.” But, “In recent years, cities throughout California have been legally challenged to shift from at-large elections to district-based elections, with the 2002 California Voting Rights Act as the basis for the legal challenge. In light of this, and as part of the City’s commitment to ensuring fair elections, the City Council voted at its meeting on January 10 to pursue districting and the expansion of the council from four to six, with a mayor elected at-large. In March 2024, voters will have the chance to vote on whether the City Council expands and moves to district-based elections.” However, instead of discussing the pros and cons of  conversion to by-district elections, the City Council has devoted most of its efforts to promoting the public’s participation in a contest to draw proposed district maps.

The City Council’s web site does not disclose that its own legal counsel challenged the premises underlying the adoption of by-district elections in Irvine:

It is one thing to order a city to draw districts along race-based lines when doing so will give a protected class electoral strength it never had before. It is quite another to order a city to engage in such race-conscious line-drawing when it will achieve no purpose. The U. S. Supreme Court has condemned “[r]acial gerrymandering,” which threatens to “balkanize us into competing racial factions” and “to carry us further from the goal of a political system in which race no longer matters.” (Shaw v. Reno (1993) 509 U.S. 630, 657.) Forcing the most integrated big city in the country to draw race-based districts would be a huge step backwards. “It would be an irony” if the CVRA ‘were interpreted to entrench racial differences by expanding a ‘statute meant to hasten the waning of racism in American politics.’” (Bartlett v. Strickland (2009) 556 U.S. 1, 25-26.) (April 23, 2021, letter, by City Attorney Melching, Exhibit A to Amicus Brief)

The creation of voting districts is unnecessary and poses serious risks  of harm because (a) there is no definitive evidence that moving to by-district voting will result in greater minority representation on the City Council (see, e.g., Study of Results of By-District Elections Shows Impact on Minority Representation Inconclusive; Report on Santa Cruz City Council Elections Post Adoption of By-District Voting In Which Only One of 6 Candidates Was Hispanic;League of Women Voters Amicus Brief Filed in Support of City of Santa Monica Against By-District Voting); (b) other remedial alternatives to by-district elections, such as cumulative voting, limited voting, or ranked choice voting, can be applied in an at-large election system (See Pico vs. City of Santa Monica, California Supreme Court, p. 22); and (c) adoption of by-district local elections opens the door to a number of harmful, unintended, and costly consequences, including:

a. Self-segregation of populations into like racial, ethnic, and other districts, the current equivalent of the now-disfavored racist doctrine once promoted as “separate but equal,” except that it will be self-imposed.

b. Conflict among districts for allocation of city resources.

c. Lack of collaboration among Councilmembers, each of whom will align themselves with the goals and desires of their district’s constituents to win election.

d. Increased antagonism among competing district residents, both within districts and among the several districts.

e. Increased City non-governance costs due to (i) challenges and lawsuits brought by aggrieved districts or their constituents who view themselves as negatively impacted by the competition among districts for power and advantage, and (ii) the ongoing costs which will be incurred to redraw district maps after each census.

f. Gerrymandering, or manipulation of district lines, to enlarge the voting power of communities possessing greater power.

My opposition to the creation of voting districts for City Council elections has its origins in my family history. My parents were holocaust survivors who, in their mid-20s, were captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz, while their grandparents, parents, siblings, and others were killed. Prior to Hitler’s rise, most Jews were already living in separate “districts” (Jewish ghettos), whether under legal fiat or by choice. During this time, false and vicious rumors were spread about Jews, but, as they lived apart from the remaining population, people who had no personal interactions with Jews believed the rumors, including that Jews captured and slaughtered Christian children during Passover in order to drink their blood. Even during my childhood in New York, Southerners and Midwesterners visiting the city would ask Jews to show them the horns on their heads because the statue of Moses carved by Michelangelo depicted the beams/horns of light described in the Bible as emanating from the top of Moses’ head as literal horns.

We cannot live together peacefully if we assume that minority populations will never willingly assimilate or become real Americans or if we assume that they are trying to replace authentic Americans. The creation of voting districts likely will enlarge divisions among communities as various racial, ethnic, religious, and other groups will migrate to districts where they will be surrounded by people of like backgrounds, beliefs, and cultures, resulting in de facto segregation. This self-segregation for the sake of assumed increased voting rights will help realize late Alabama Governor George Wallace’s pledge of “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Separate but equal, whatever the intentions, and whether imposed by others or adopted voluntarily, never has been and never will be a proper means to achieve true equality. “Segregation was wrong when it was forced by white people, and I believe it is still wrong when it is requested by black people.” (Coretta Scott King, cited in “The Last Word:  A Treasury of Women’s Quotes” by Carolyn Warner, p. 99, 1992.)

Even assuming that the current election system violates the CVRA, there are other means of addressing inequities, including within an at-large voting system. Separate but equal, whatever the underlying intentions, and whether imposed by others or adopted voluntarily, never has been and never will be a proper means to achieving true equality.

Cathy Schiff moved to Irvine in 1978 while attending USC School of Law. She practiced law in Irvine for over40 years before retiring. Cathy felt compelled to write this opinion as the daughter of holocaust survivors who strongly believes that integration is an effective antidote to racism and other schisms.

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