for Mayor of Benicia
Issues - AT-LARGE vs. DISTRICT ELECTIONS (2/5/20)
In January, the City Council considered whether to switch how council members are elected from AT-LARGE elections to DISTRICT-BASED elections. A Southern California lawyer has been sending letters to several government entities threatening to sue them for alleged violations of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) unless they switched to district elections (and pay him $30,000 for his legal expenses in bringing the suit).
Under district elections, the City would be split into four districts, and council members could only be elected by voters in their district. Instead of voting for two candidates every two years as is the current method, voters could only vote for one candidate from their district every four years. (The Mayor position would remain at large.)
I opposed this change for many reasons.
- Under district elections, a council member could be torn between decisions that served his/her district, or served the city as a whole. Why should I vote for street repairs in another district, if it meant they would not happen in my district? It is only natural that they would defer first to their voters. Council members should first look to the City as a whole when making decisions.
- Being on the Council is hard work and demanding. There is a limited number of people willing to put in the effort to be elected, and then commit the time to being an effective council member. What if no such person stepped up in a particular district? Or only one person did, and they did not share your values? Voters would not have the choice to vote for candidates who lived outside their district, even if they were much more attuned to a voter’s positions and values.
- The purpose of the California Voting Rights Act is to make it more likely for members of a protected class to be elected. In cities where minorities live in distinct areas, district elections provide a greater chance of electoral success than an at-large election process. This is appropriate for those cities.
- The Benicia Unified School District opted to adopt district elections in 2019. As part of their process, they hired a demographer who looked at where minorities lived in Benicia, and whether a district could be created to give minorities a better chance of being elected. Benicia is approximately 70% white, 10% Asian-American, 10% Latino, and 5% African-American. The demographers found that our community is so well integrated that it was not possible to create a district where minorities made up more than 35% of voters. (In fact, in 2018, voters elected a Latino to the Council in an at-large election.) Given that, switching to district elections would not have achieved a solution to a non-existent problem.
- The City had not (and has not as of 2/12/20) received such a letter threatening to sue us. To change the way we have always elected council members, because of the POSSIBILITY of receiving a threat to sue, was not reason enough to proceed with a major shake-up in how we elect our City Council representatives.
- And to switch in mid-2020 to district voting for the November 2020 election would give council candidates too little time to decide to run, form a committee, raise money, and do the work necessary to effectively compete. Such a move would unfairly benefit incumbents.
Public sentiment, as measured by letters and emails received by the Council, public testimony received at the meeting, and social media comments were nearly unanimous against making this change to district elections.
In the end, the Council voted not to change to District elections by a 4-1 vote. Vice Mayor Strawbridge was the lone vote against.
Nikki Basch Davis
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Steve Young for Mayor
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