News

Editorial: Universal district-based elections do not make sense here

 

Many municipalities in the Tri-Valley are being forced to adopt district-based elections or risk being sued, which could result in costs of millions of dollars from a likely unwinnable case.

Governmental agencies including the city of San Ramon, the town of Danville and the San Ramon Valley school district, received letters in late 2018 from Scott Rafferty, a Walnut Creek-based attorney and a longtime proponent of district elections, citing the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) and claiming that at-large voting "dilutes minority electoral influence" in elections.

San Ramon does have an area of segmented population, with Dougherty Valley being predominantly Asian-American. However, the possible problem of under-representation for this group began correcting itself, as was evidenced by the candidates in the 2018 city elections as well as the subsequent election of Sabina Zafar to the City Council.

District-based elections can be beneficial for larger agencies that serve many communities, like Alameda County Board of Supervisors or even the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.

However, forcing geographic subdivision on relatively small areas, especially those without large segmented populations, like Pleasanton, is not necessary; it is counterproductive and will have unintended negative consequences.

First, it reduces opportunities for voters to make their voices heard. When a city or school district is divvied up into sub-areas, most voters will only be able to cast a ballot for a council or school board member once every four years, as opposed to each available seat every two years with an at-large district.

It can also limit the number and variety of candidates by reducing the pool, which can be especially problematic for agencies already struggling to find fresh candidates -- think the recent Pleasanton Unified School District elections with only unopposed incumbents. If there are no candidates from a district, the supervising authority would then consider appointing someone.

We saw what can happen with appointments when the Dublin Unified School District, which is divided into trustee areas, tried to appoint a provisional trustee to fill a seat in December after a trustee resigned. The appointment was overturned and the seat left vacant because of a provision in state law that allows voters to challenge and demand a special election instead.

That petition needed to be signed by 1.5% of voters in the election area. In this case, after districting occurred, only 74 voters from Trustee Area 4 were needed to force a special election, which will cost taxpayers an estimated $60,000 at least.

The threshold is also changed for recall petitions to remove an elected official from local government office. Though the petition percentages remain between 10% and 30% of registered voters, depending on election area size, the number of actual signatures needed can be significantly lower depending on the number of registered voters in a district. This unintended consequence could become very costly.

The CVRA was established to increase the influence of voters from under-represented groups, which is a laudable goal and appropriate when there is a need. We would certainly like to see more consistent diversity among candidates in local elections here.

In the case of the Tri-Valley communities being pressed to adopt district-based elections, however, it has the potential to create divisiveness and more factions, undoing any cohesiveness that has taken hold on the various councils and boards. With the small size of these communities, it's important that the elected officials work for the entire community and all the residents, not just a vocal neighborhood -- which might happen if their re-election depends on catering to that group.

District-based elections just do not make sense for a majority of the agencies within the Tri-Valley and, particularly, for Pleasanton. By forcing district-based elections on agencies for which it doesn't make sense, nobody is benefiting. Except maybe the Walnut Creek attorney.

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Comments

10 people like this
Posted by Laura
a resident of Monte Vista High School
on May 27, 2019 at 1:53 pm

I agree 100%, but didn’t see that there was anything we could do as voting citizens to stop this change. Some things are better left as is. I don’t like the idea whatsoever that I can’t vote for all members on the SRVUSD School Board now, especially since what each of them does has an impact on my child and all children attending the SRVUSD schools, independent of whether we live in San Ramon, Danville, or unincorporated Danville, Blackhawk or Alamo. It’s a very unfortunate election change and I believe it will negatively affect our community and our top-rated school district.


Posted by Seth
a resident of Danville

on May 27, 2019 at 5:50 pm


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13 people like this
Posted by Scott J Rafferty
a resident of Walnut Creek
on May 28, 2019 at 12:24 pm

Scott J Rafferty is a registered user.

Neighborhood elections empower voters and strengthen government. By contrast, at-large elections have prevented voters from the eastern half of the city from ever having elected a neighbor to city council, the school board, the fire district, or DSRSD. Smaller constituencies also lower the costs of campaigning, enabling grass-roots candidates to make elections more competitive. It is understandable that some incumbents, and those who support them, favor the system that brought them to power, but every neighborhood should have equal electoral influence. And every voter in San Ramon Valley benefits from more competitive elections.

The article's fear that districted officials will only serve the needs of their "vocal neighborhood" ignores history and logic. Representative democracy works. We elect state and federal legislators from single member constituencies so that they bring an understanding of our local values and conditions, but they always serve the entire state and nation. As Madison predicted, individually electing representatives allowed America to avoid the divisive factions and instability that had been typical of parliaments elected at large.

However, a century ago, many local jurisdictions began electing at-large to exclude ethic neighborhoods from electing candidates of their choice. This winner-take-all system had become the norm in Northern California when San Ramon was incorporated, but most cities of similar size have since returned to district elections. The high costs of campaigning in SRVUSD (one of the biggest at-large districts in the state) has meant that no incumbent (elected or appointed) has been successfully challenged in 25 years. When SRVUSD had a rare vacancy, 8 of the 18 applicants were from Dougherty Valley (all Asian) and none even received an interview.

In San Ramon Valley, federal law requires single-member districts because there is a geographical area in which a majority of voters are Asian. Winner-take-all deprives voters from this area (white and Asian) of influence in elections that is equal to that of voters in the rest of the jurisdiction. All elected officials for all four jurisdictions, even Sabina Zafar, live in areas that are not majority Asian.

The Voting Rights Act is all about voters, not incumbents and candidates or the color of their skin. The election of Sabina Zafar did not "correct" this problem. She does not live east of Dougherty Road. That large area needs to be able to choose its preferred candidate, who may or may not be Asian.

Finally, districting lowers election costs by about 50%. The editorial is wrong to suggest that it cost $60,000 to conduct an all-mail special election in Dublin USD, because the trustee area only has 5000 voters. Oddly, the editors have no problem with the very high costs of having everyone vote for every candidate every two years, even though this winner-take-all system means that much of the Valley never gets to elect any candidate of its choice.




2 people like this
Posted by Roz Rogoff
a resident of San Ramon
on May 30, 2019 at 8:18 am

I live in Sunny Glen, which is a retirement area. While it is possible for parents 55 years old and up to have young children or teens, most residents here do not have school age children living with them. So now Sunny Glen will have more influence electing a member of the School Board, which seems contrary to the goal of providing ethnic diversity on the Board.


Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Danville

on May 30, 2019 at 9:31 am

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11 people like this
Posted by The Dude
a resident of San Ramon
on Jun 10, 2019 at 7:02 pm

Mr. Rafferty,
You're not very familiar with the geography of San Ramon, are you? Thanks for coming in to save us from ourselves.


Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Danville

on Jun 10, 2019 at 10:21 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Danville

on Jun 10, 2019 at 10:21 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


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