We understand that some people resent being “forced” to do anything – even if it is the right thing.
That might be the case for many voters as they consider moving away from at-large city council elections, in which everyone votes on all candidates, to district elections. Eventually, every city in the state will have to make that decision. This November, it’s Merced’s and Turlock’s turn.
Turlock voters have Measure A; Merced voters will say yes or no to Measure T. Each requires its city to abandon at-large city council elections in favor of district elections. There is much to gain and little to lose in making this switch.
The California Voting Rights Act of 2001 and subsequent court interpretations require cities and school districts to provide district representation. Five years ago, Modesto was forced to abandon its at-large elections – at a cost of $3 million. Now, Modesto elects council members from six districts, with the mayor elected by the entire city. As Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh told the Santa Barbara Independent, the City Council had been “male, pale and stale.” Now it includes a woman and two Latino men.
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The lack of representation for large portions of our population – whether based on ethnicity, geography or income – is a serious problem. So we support such measures. Considering the failure of every city to resist in court, taking a contrarian stand and petulantly saying “you can’t make me” is senseless. The courts can and will make cities and school districts become more representative. By voting for change, residents can have a greater voice in how it is done – and save taxpayer dollars.
Still, reform can be cyclical. For most of the last century at-large elections were considered a reformer’s tool, used to chase corrupt “ward bosses” out of large cities. Many cities staggered at-large elections so voters had a say every two years rather than once every four. A drawback of most district plans is that residents are stuck with the same council member for four years. But such considerations are less important in our diverse state than addressing the lack of opportunity for minorities.
Merced and Turlock are asking voters to confirm the switch to district elections; deciding district boundaries and election rules will come later. We urge passage of both measures.
Turlock Measure A
The need for change is clear. Though 36 percent of the city’s population is Latino, there has never been a Latino councilmember. No member of the current council lives in the economically challenged south part of the city. Turlock voters are being asked to split the city into four districts, then elected the mayor at large. Five men are running for two open seats on what could be Turlock’s last at-large City Council election and four favor Measure A, as do both mayoral candidates. Turlock is known as a well-run, innovative city. Providing leadership from a wider variety of people from across the city should only improve that reputation.
Merced Measure T
Latinos make up 49 percent of Merced’s population, but there are no Latinos on the City Council. Voters are being asked to approve six districts – eventually drawn by the League of Women Voters – with an at-large mayor. There is opposition – not to districts, but to how they are formed. An alternative plan asks for three larger districts with two representatives each. That would require voting no on the measure, which invites a lawsuit. With two representatives per district, terms could be staggered so voters can make changes more frequently. We like the concept of more frequent elections, but worry that larger districts would not provide more minority opportunity. The law requires formation of districts that give minorities a better chance to win. If minority voters do not participate – as is often the case – that opportunity is diminished in larger districts. Merced voters should approve Measure T, then help create a plan that best suits the city.
More of these measures are coming. Riverbank and Patterson will soon be asked to make the change – or go to court. Such choices are clear. Allowing more people to participate in our democracy keeps it strong.