Dan Walters: Which voting system is fairest?

07/14/2013 12:00 AM

07/15/2013 8:22 AM

Which system of electing local city council members and school trustees best serves the interests of residents, voters and taxpayers – groups that are not necessarily synonymous?

Is it electing them "at-large," meaning all voters vote for or against all candidates? Would it be better to elect them from districts, in which only voters within those sub-entities may vote? Or is a combination – electing from districts but with all voters having a say – a reasonable compromise?

These questions have kicked around California civic and academic circles for decades. At-large voting, its advocates argued, considered a community's big-picture needs, rather than parochial concerns. But proponents of district voting countered that at-large voting made it too easy for one segment of the community to dominate others.

Changes occurred only rarely; in general, larger cities and school systems opted for district voting, while smaller ones stuck with at-large voting.

However, as California's population became more diverse during the 1980s and 1990s and as communities experienced the de facto segregation of ethnic and economic clustering, civil rights advocates became more adamant about district voting to boost local representation of nonwhite and poor residents.

They waged local ballot measure campaigns to change systems, with some success, and invoked the federal Voting Rights Act.

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that at-large elections in Watsonville violated federal law, forcing it to adopt district voting. But the court also laid down preconditions that limited the ruling's wider impact.

In response, Latino rights organizations sponsored legislation to make it easier to challenge at-large voting systems in state courts. Then-Gov. Gray Davis signed the California Voting Rights Act in 2002.

Two years later, its advocates won a big case against Modesto's at-large system, forcing the city not only to change to districts but also to pay plaintiffs' lawyers $3 million. Later, cases were successfully waged against school districts in Hanford and Madera.

Anaheim, home to Disneyland and the state's 10th largest city, may be next.

It's the largest California city still using at-large voting. Even though more than half of its residents are Latino, white Republicans dominate local politics.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the city under the state Voting Rights Act, fueled by protests over alleged police brutality. To stave off complete change, the Anaheim City Council, by a 3-2 vote, has placed on the ballot a hybrid system to choose its members from districts, but with citywide voting.

Its critics, however, are not mollified, since the council rejected its own committee's district voting proposal. The suit continues.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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