While most Orange County cities elect their councils at-large, and several have moved to by-district elections under the litigation gun, two cities – Santa Ana and Newport Beach – elected their city councils via a mixed system: candidates must live in and run from a geographic voting district, but are voted on city-wide (this is how most school districts elected their governing boards).
After the Santa Ana police officers union succeeded last November in reducing the council majority of which he is a part, Councilman Sal Tinajero was suddenly disturbed by the power of government unions – are at least this particular union. Earlier this year, he unsuccessfully moved for a shift to by-district elections in hopes of mitigating the police union’s campaign funding muscle.
There are pros and cons to either approach. Under a by-district election system, candidates have to communicate with significantly fewer voters in order to win election. The upshot – in theory, at least – is a candidate can win without a large warchest through grass-roots organizing. However, a serious downside is councilmembers are still governing the entire city but are no longer accountable to the entire city. Citizens are governed by councilmembers in whose election – save one – they have no voice.
Despite the defeat of Tinajero’s motion to consider by-district elections, the issue isn’t dead in Santa Ana. Tomorrow night there will be Election Process Forum 4-26-17 Eng Span on the topic, with Santa Ana resident and businessman Mike Tardif presenting the case for the current system, and Anaheim Councilman Jose Moreno presenting the case for by-district elections:
The city council still has the option of placing the question before the voters, which could also be achieved by a citizens petition drive as happened in San Clemente (where a hostile city council chose to punt the measure until the 2018 ballot rather than the 2016 ballot desired by organizers). Alternatively, the matter could be forced by a California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) lawsuit; there has been talk of such action in OC GOP circles for a few years now. However, the likelihood of a lawsuit from any political quarter is somewhat diminished by a new state law capping attorney fees in CVRA lawsuits at $75,000.
Santa Ana’s population is 78% Latino but its council is 100% Latino (and Democratic). A CVRA lawsuit could flip the progressive script and claim racially-polarized voting deprives the city’s growing Asian (primarily Vietnamese) and white citizens of having their “candidates of choice” elected to the council.
Since the current system skews, in a partisan sense, totally in favor of Latino Democrat candidates, a shift to by-district elections – regardless of the means of achieving it – could well result in the election of one or two Vietnamese-American council members, which would increase the odds of a Republican presence on the council.