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California News

Watsonville Lawsuit Appealing At-Large Elections Set Precedent for California Cities to Move to District Elections

The city of Santa Cruz is considering a switch to district elections to ensure its population is represented fairly

Watsonville City Councilwoman Rebecca Garcia says that district elections have allowed the city to become more representative of its population. PHOTO: Tarmo Hannula

On a Saturday in 1989, Rebecca Garcia and others of Latinx descent stood on the steps of Watsonville’s city hall building. The council was holding a closed meeting about appealing the court ruling that at-large elections in Watsonville were illegally diluting the Latinx vote—a claim that, decades later, the city of Santa Cruz now faces.

“Basically, we were almost set up for failure as far as a Latino running a successful campaign in at-large elections,” says Garcia, who is now a city councilwoman serving the fifth district in Watsonville.

At-large elections allow all residents to vote for every representative running in a city, and elected officials, in turn, represent the whole community. Prior to the Voting Rights Act in 1965, at-large elections were the most common form of representation across the U.S. 

But when the Voting Rights Act passed, cities with at-large elections became susceptible to lawsuits if it was found that votes from minority populations were being diluted.

Because of that, cities across the country began moving to district elections, a system where residents choose a representative for their area of the city. Proponents of district elections say that this type of system helps localize democracy and elect more diverse representatives, or at least representatives more attune to minority interests. 

“Watsonville had a nearly all-white city council. The one Latino on the council was a wealthy realtor and didn’t advocate for our interests,” says Garcia. “Prior to district elections, Latinos were totally ignored. We were not part of the political process—and that’s what the lawsuit proved.” 

The lawsuit in Watsonville set the stage for cities across California. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, and after the city was found guilty of diluting Latinx votes, cities across the state, including Salinas and Pajaro Valley Unified School District, transitioned to district elections rather than be hit with a similar lawsuit.

Now, the city of Santa Cruz is faced with a civil complaint that says voting in Santa Cruz is racially polarized, and that the city’s at-large elections weaken the Latinx community’s chance at equal representation.

As the city council decides whether to transition to district elections or fight the lawsuit, residents and council members wonder if district elections will be an effective way to further diversify the council and address the lack of Latinx representation.

A Case Study

“We blamed ourselves because we weren’t able to succeed in the campaigns that we worked on,” says Celia Organista, the former president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). LULAC is the largest and oldest Latinx civil rights organization in the country.

Organista had watched with initial hope and then dismay as nine people of Latinx descent ran for seats between 1970 and 1985 and lost. According to the 1980 census, people of Latinx descent made up 36% of the population. In reality, Rebecca Garcia estimates Latinx residents made up a larger portion of the population, likely closer to half of all Watsonville residents, given the large number of undocumented residents living in the town. Still, the city council had never had a person of Latinx descent elected in its 120-year history.

In the mid-80s, Joaquin Avila, who was the president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), came to Watsonville and spoke with LULAC. 

He told Organista and the rest of the group about a lawsuit in Texas, where people of Latinx descent constituted a large portion of the population—but despite running, never seemed to be elected. Part of the problem, the lawsuit claimed, was at-large elections, which worked to decentralize the Latinx vote.

“A light bulb went on, and you kind of go like, ‘Oh, well, maybe we eliminate these things, then our chances would be better,’” Organista says. Avila illuminated what Organista had brushed up against but couldn’t name: a systematic disadvantage.

Under Organista’s leadership, LULAC became friends of the court during Dolores Cruz Gomez v. the City of Watsonville, and the court ruled in their favor.  

In 1989, Watsonville had district elections for the first time. Four Latinx candidates ran for city council, but only one, Oscar Rios, was elected. Despite the three defeats, Garcia was encouraged by the results.

“Only one Latino was elected, but the majority of those elected were strong advocates for the Latino community. And they did advocate for Latinos,” Garcia says. 

Even now, as a city councilwoman, Garcia credits district elections with more responsive representatives and a more representative council.

“By having district elections, I feel I’m able to connect better with those that I represented,” she says.

But Organista has a different perspective. Yes, the council is more diverse (four out of the six current councilmembers in Watsonville are of Latinx descent), but she wonders if district elections ultimately hindered the city’s progress. It’s a challenge critics point to with district elections: representatives are beholden to their district’s needs, which might create more division as representatives fight for their constituents’ priorities.

“There’s days when I don’t think there’s been any change,” says Organista. 

Organista also says a transition to district elections should come with a clear goal and serve a purpose. She points to Watsonville’s apparent exclusion of people of Latinx descent from city council seats in the ’80s, and wonders if that parallel can be drawn in Santa Cruz.

“What is the basis? Our basis was very clear. We had tried and tried and tried and tried to get Latinos to be elected. But they were overpowered because there was a much higher white community voting,” says Organista. “Is Santa Cruz being sued just because the state wants them to be in districts, or is there a pattern of [Latinos being] disenfranchised?”

Status in Santa Cruz 

“I’ve lived in Santa Cruz for 23 years now and I have never heard anyone complain about the at-large system. That kind of makes you think, ‘Is a problem that doesn’t exist sort of being foisted upon us’?” asks Rory O’Brien, head of the Political Science department at Cabrillo College.

Every year, cities across California that are using at-large systems are hit with civil complaints and lawsuits for intentionally or unintentionally using voting systems that discriminate against minorities, thereby violating the 2001 California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). In the past seven years, more than 150 cities have transitioned to district elections rather than spend upwards of a million dollars to challenge the lawsuit.

The Santa Cruz lawsuit was brought by Fargely Law, a law firm in Santa Barbara, on behalf of Travis Roderick, an area resident who also brought a similar claim to Santa Cruz City Schools, which consequently shifted to district elections.

The civil complaint claims that Santa Cruz’s at-large system is impairing the ability of Latinx residents to elect candidates of their choice to city council—a charge city officials deny. Only two people of Latinx descent have been elected from 2000 to 2018, despite Latinos representing around 30% of Santa Cruz’s population. Currently, no people of Latinx descent sit on the city council.

But whether district elections will be the remedy is up for debate. Maria Cadenas, who ran for city council in 2020, thinks that narrowing the underrepresentation of Latinx people to a matter of electoral systems simplifies the issue. But, she says, district elections have the potential to make running more accessible.

“In at-large, it will cost more money to run. It makes it hard for somebody who’s not engaged in established circles to be heard or valued or lifted,” says Cadenas. “In order to win, you need to compete, both in dollars and reach to the entire city. And that in itself, for any candidate, limits accessibility.”

Yet council members wonder if moving to at-large elections will actually pose a risk to the diversity of the council. Currently, the city council has a higher representation of Black people in proportion to their demographics in Santa Cruz.

“It’s a pretty diverse council, in terms of race and ethnicity. So there’s the concern that moving to district elections won’t allow for this type of diversity,” says councilwoman Shebreh Kalantari-Johnson.

But geographically speaking, the council is pretty homogenous: all seven council members are living in the center of Santa Cruz. There are no city council members who are from outlying areas, including Prospect Heights, Santa Cruz Gardens and parts of the Eastside. That would have to change if the city moves to district elections, which mandates that council members must be living in the district which they represent.

Cadenas emphasizes the importance of drawing those districts with demographics in mind. 

“If you create a district that covers the downtown area through the wharf, for example, you have a very heavily business district,” says Cadenas. “And yet within that district, you have predominantly low-income communities of color. For a person of color to run against business interest will be extremely difficult.”

It’s a concern the public and city council members echo as well. Will the way the districts are drawn negatively impact the chances for minority candidates or success? Is the city at risk of gerrymandering, the practice of drawing districts to favor a group or party?

Kalantari-Johnson says these are important questions, and that there are steps the city and state require to address these concerns—such as public workshops, a third-party redistricting commission and hiring an expert demographer to draw districts based on census data.  

“It’s not going to be done in a vacuum,” Kalantari-Johnson says. 

The city is set to review draft maps in November and December, and will make the decision of whether or not to implement district elections in March of 2022. At the council meeting in August, council member Justin Cummings asked about challenging the lawsuit—but the legal fees are daunting, and to date no jurisdiction has successfully prevailed in challenging a CVRA violation lawsuit. 

Either way, the city will have to pay. Even without taking the lawsuit to court, the city will pay a maximum of $30,000 in legal fees, money that comes from the city’s legal fund.

Kalantari-Johnson says it’s likely the council will move to adopt district elections, which the city was already considering back in 2018.

“There’s an opportunity for growth here. We can really work on developing the pipeline to leadership in our community,” Kalantari-Johnson says.

To contribute ideas about how the districts should be drawn, email: [email protected] 

Stay updated on the upcoming community meeting about district elections at:  www.cityofsantacruz.com/government/city-departments/city-manager/transition-to-district-elections.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Stephen Bosworth

    October 6, 2021 at 12:03 am

    Making sure that the votes of minorities will be proportionally represented in the City Councils of Santa Cruz :
    Currently, all citizens’ votes for the City Council are counted in such a way that about 50% are unable to help elect a candidate of their choice. The California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) refers to these wasted votes as being “diluted”. It requires cities to change their voting methods to reduce this dilution as much as possible when suffered by members of a “protected class” – black, Latino, or other minority.
    Currently, a majority of the City Council mistakenly assumes that the CVRA will be satisfied by instead electing each of the councilmembers from a different district of the city. As reported Watsonville was able to dilute fewer votes because it could draw some districts containing a majority of citizens of a “protected class”. This is not possible in Santa Cruz. Adopting by-district elections could easily “dilute” even more votes than the some 50% that are diluted currently by the plurality at-large elections.
    Unfortunately, a majority of the Santa Cruz council seem not to have even considered the two alternative modifications of at-large voting that would greatly reduce the number of votes diluted: Single transferable voting (STV) dilutes about 12%. Evaluative proportional representation (EPR) dilutes no votes at all (0%). During its September 2, 2021 Zoom Meeting, a majority of the councilmembers seemed unaware of these genuine alternatives.
    [Contact Stephen Bosworth (Ph.D.) for details (831-332-2704)]

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