How a Districting Change Could Cost the City
Galen Davis is a nice suburban dad living in a pleasant Sunnyvale neighborhood. Sunnyvale’s a great place to raise a family, safe, with good schools and lots of parks, prosperous and culturally diverse. The city’s diversity was one of the major reasons the Korean-Oklahoman chose to move here to raise his family and run his own business.
But he noted that while the city’s demographics flipped to majority Asians a few years back, the demographics of the City Council stayed mostly White. So on January 18 he added his name to a letter to the City of Sunnyvale alleging a violation of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).
The CVRA basically means that if the faces on your City Council don’t look like the faces in your city, then the city can be sued for “racially polarized,” that is, discriminatory, voting. The only remedy acceptable under the law is to switch to from at-large voting, where voters choose every City Council candidate in the city, to one that is district-based, where you vote for the one candidate from your own district.
Since the CVRA passed in 2001, many cities in California have made the change. They may have only switched to avoid a lawsuit, particularly if a single lawyer from Malibu threatened to sue without ever stepping foot in their city. Most cities like how they vote just fine. They don’t want to take the time, energy, and money to change to a different system. So, some of those cities chose to take their CVRA action to court. All those cities lost.
Our next door neighbor Santa Clara just lost their CVRA case in the County Superior Court. They now face an estimated $5,000,000 in legal costs. Santa Clara also lost their right to dictate how they would implement the transition from at-large to district-based voting. The courts ordered a change to 6 districts, plus a directly elected mayor. Santa Clara is appealing the ruling. Perhaps they feel the judge unfairly lowered the threshold for polarized voting, which already seems vaguely defined within the CVRA itself.
The City of Sunnyvale would very much like to avoid all that. They would prefer to keep the potential $4 – 6 million in legal costs. They have been working closely with the Asian law coalition (Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus and the Asian Law Alliance) who are backing the plaintiffs. They developed a plan for transitioning the city to a district voting system, as well as a city-wide outreach program.
Competent, polite consultants were brought in to run the outreach—marketing experts, demographers, professionals who know how to pronounce ‘gerrymander’ correctly (Gary-mander, not Jerry-mander). They scheduled open house meetings and pop-up events, launched a dedicated web site, took out Facebook ads, wrote articles in the city’s quarterly mailer, and placed notices in utility bills. They even formed a CVRA Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC).
The CAC spend their meeting times brainstorming how to reach the general public. Members attend council meetings and hand out flyers at the farmer’s market. They evangelize their personal networks, their family, friends, acquaintances. They face polite indifference. The Latina CAC member got a lot of blank stares when she talked to other Latinos. People smiled and said they’re happy to let her do whatever with all that, whatever she’s doing—the whole voting thing.
Most people just don’t have the time to worry about something so boring. Everyone knows Sunnyvale is a well-run city. That’s because city staff focus on running the city, things like balancing the budget, cutting tree limbs, and issuing permits. Trying to reach residents and persuading them to pay attention to voting systems is not really any city’s forte. Unsurprisingly, public response has been largely muted. Residents turn up at events in the tens, not the hundreds or thousands.
This may present a problem to the city if most of the residents are unaware of the voting change process, then suddenly learn they can only vote for one councilor, not seven. In June, Sunnyvale’s City Council voted to approve a ballot measure for a 6+1 option (the same as Santa Clara’s court-ordered change, 6 districts, plus a mayor) in the upcoming presidential primary election on March 3, 2020. Registered voters may then ask why voting for way fewer councilors is supposed to be a good thing. Also, does this imply the good people of Sunnyvale are prejudiced?
For a progressive city that idea does not go over well. Sunnyvale is well integrated. Only one section has a high concentration of a single minority group, an area north of 101 which is 33% Latino. Minority candidates have run and won seats. Even the ones that didn’t win got plenty of votes. Hispanic law student Gustavo Magaño, who may have only spent a few hundred dollars on his campaign, still got 1,041 votes in 2013. In the last election, African-American Henry Alexander III, got 14,646. That’s almost 6 times the entire Black population of Sunnyvale.
Sunnyvale residents may not want to change systems. Currently a candidate must appeal to the entire city. Campaigning city-wide offers candidates a broad view of voters’ concerns, not just the neighborhoods where they live. Only focusing on a fraction of the city may balkanize, i.e. splinter, the city into tribal factions. Having a smaller area may make it less expensive to run for office, but it could also mean that special interest groups would find it cheaper to influence local elections. (Though in Sunnyvale those “groups” generally mean organizations like real estate developers from Foster City or San Mateo.) Currently, no study has been conducted to prove that more minorities are elected in cities with district-based elections, though at least one city acquired more Hispanic councilors after switching.
They may feel that different factors are to blame for the relative lack of diversity on City Council. Some may even go so far as to say it’s because City Council is a thankless job or an expensive hobby. It’s complicated, time-consuming, and involves a lot of paperwork. You have to ask people you know for money (campaign donations), follow confusing rules, and talk in public. If you get elected, you may have to make unpopular decisions, get blamed for things you have no control over, and listen politely in endless public meetings while angry residents accuse you of corruption.
On top of that, minorities could have other reasons that make running for office more difficult, reasons that laws can’t address. Culturally, they may be expected to focus more on their family. They may be recent immigrants who are worried about financial security. They may come from non-democratic countries. They aren’t necessarily going to appeal to the different ethnic groups within their own racial category; a candidate from a Chinese background may not get support from voter with an Indian background.
So why are the plaintiffs (Galen, Samir Kalra, Kathy Higuchi, Bowman Ching) asking for a change many may not want? None of them will get any money, they’ll just get to vote for fewer City Council candidates. The lawyers in the case will only be compensated for direct legal expenses, and only if they win in court or negotiate a settlement. The lawyers probably won’t be paid for sitting in City Council meetings or attending pop-ups or driving from their offices in San Francisco or driving back to their homes in Oakland.
Clearly then, this is about the issues. It comes down to equal representation under the law. When Mason Fong was elected last November, not one of the seven current councilors were from a minority race in a city that is 65% Non-White. (The Council is also mostly male, but gender is not addressed in the CVRA). District voting could make running for City Council more accessible.
Galen isn’t worried about balkanization or big outside money from Foster City. He wants a city government that “is ‘owned by’ and is responsive to the residents as a whole.” As the natural consequence of that, Galen feels that “government needs to be aware of and embrace the different communities within its jurisdiction. The terms of the engagement have to be equal.”
The question is, how does Sunnyvale do that?
What you can do:
Misuk Park is the Publisher of Sunnyvaleans.org. She volunteers as the Chair of Sunnyvale’s CVRA Citizens Advisory Committee. Misuk has a Marketing and Communications background, but who listens to the marketing guy in Silicon Valley?