This November, voters in Anaheim will select two candidates for city council; the two candidates with the most votes will carry the day in what is known as an at-large (city-wide) election. On the same ballot, voters will be asked to approve a new, district-based system, for the election of all future council members. For this, we must credit the American Civil Leader Union (ACLU), which was pushing for districts in its lawsuit with the city. The litigation resulted in a settlement whereby voters will decide the matter. In order to obtain a favorable vote for districts in Anaheim, it is important to challenge and broaden the legal argument put forth by the ACLU. The ACLU was right about districts, but wrong about Anaheim.
While the issue may appear esoteric, the best reason for change is very simple: Anaheim has outgrown its at-large system and districts will bring government closer to the people. A city of 340,000, it is virtually impossible for a council candidate in Anaheim to win election as a result of personal relationships formed by going door-to-door during a campaign. Rather, a candidate must possess (or purchase) name recognition. As such, the city’s special interests regularly trump the will of the people by courting incumbents and through expensive city-wide mail campaigns.
Special interests will continue to have a major influence in district elections, but their financial clout will be checked by a candidate’s relationships among a manageable number of constituents within a district. Politicians in Anaheim, therefore, will have an increased incentive to regularly engage with their neighbors. In this way, government will be brought closer to the people.
The ACLU put forth a very different argument for districts. Based on California’s Voting Rights Act, its claim against the city maintained:
Anaheim’s at-large method of electing its City Council has resulted in vote dilution for Latino residents, impairing their ability to elect candidates of their choice or to influence the outcome of City elections, and has long denied Anaheim’s Latino residents effective political participation in the City’s electoral process.
[U]se of an at-large system to elect [Anaheim's] City Council and the prevalence of racially polarized voting is responsible for the absence of any Latinos on the City Council. This, combined with a history of discrimination in the City that still impacts the Latino community, reveals a lack of meaningful access for Latinos to the political process in Anaheim.
In other words, the ACLU is suggesting that the at-large system is a manifestation of persisting racist attitudes in the city. Respectfully, I strongly disagree with the ACLU’s race-centered analyses of Anaheim politics. Unquestionably, at-large elections produce a disproportionately bad result for the Latino community, but that state of affairs has no connection to racism in the city’s past.
Have no doubt, Anaheim has a history of bad race relations and white supremacy. As discussed in the ACLU’s complaint:
Anaheim has a long history of discrimination against minorities, including Latinos, and of racial tension. In 1924, at least three Ku Klux Klan members were elected to the City Council and earned the City the nickname “Klanaheim.” That year, Anaheim was the site of the largest white supremacist rally in California history. In 1928, La Palma School was built as a segregated school for Mexican children in Anaheim. . . . In the 1940s, “non-whites” were only permitted to swim in the City’s public pool on Mondays, the day before it was cleaned, and Mexican-Americans were not permitted to use the City’s public tennis courts.