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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 10:59 pm | Fair 47º


Randy Alcorn: Santa Barbara’s District Elections, and the Politics of Disintegration

​Under the duress of costly litigation, the Santa Barbara City Council capitulated to the demands of five residents to change the city’s method of electing council members to a district system from an at-large system.

What this means is that no longer will all voters get to elect all the council members who govern the city. Instead, Santa Barbara will be partitioned into six districts whose voters will elect one council member from their district. The mayor will be the only council member to be elected by all the city’s voters.

While representative democracy is a fundamental founding feature of the American political system — designed to reasonably ensure that the disparate desires and unique needs of geographically vast and demographically diverse jurisdictions are addressed — Santa Barbara is a city of about 20 square miles containing fewer than 95,000 people. It is neither vast nor dissonantly diverse.

The basis for the lawsuit to change Santa Barbara’s election method was that the at-large system resulted in too few ethnic minority candidates being elected to the city council. The plaintiffs complained that while Latinos currently comprise 38 percent of the city’s population, only one Latino candidate has been elected to the council over the past 15 years. That situation could indicate “racial polarization,” which is prohibited under California’s Voting Rights Act.

Because state courts have never ruled in favor of a city accused of racial polarization, Santa Barbara’s City Council voted unanimously to settle the lawsuit and avoid expending $3.5 million on a lost cause. Apparently, in California, a city accused of racial polarization receives as much justice as did people accused of witchcraft during the Inquisition.

If Santa Barbara’s city council has had few Latino members, it has also had few if any members from any number of groups who have or claim to have some distinct features, conditions or backgrounds.

How many homeless council members have there been? How many LGBT members? How many redheaded, pit bull owners? Does the Santa Barbara community really need to be divided up into its subatomic particles to have inclusive representative democracy?

It is rarely difficult to find diversity among a population, and there are always people who feel compelled to dwell on diversity as something that separates their group from others, whether it is race, religion, economic status or whatever. When they attach victim status to their group identities, then it must be determined whether there are legitimate or perceived grievances.

Whatever legitimate grievances Santa Barbara’s Latino citizens may have, do they pertain to all Latinos throughout the city? How are they better addressed by gerrymandering the city into ethnic fiefdoms? The two required Latino-majority districts under the new system will have only two votes out of seven on the council.

The city electorate is 18 percent to 24 percent Latino. If they all voted in every election, might they not have gotten one or two Latino candidates elected under the at-large system? The dearth of Latino council members could be the result of few Latino candidates running and or too few Latinos voting. But, no, the victimization mentality must believe that it is some form of racial prejudice that keeps Latinos off city council.

Correlation is not cause — unless you need it to be. Just because few city council members have had Hispanic surnames does not mean that the city is “racially polarized,” but you can say that it is, especially if it gains you some advantage.

Santa Barbara voters have not demonstrated any pervasive prejudice or glaring antagonisms against ethnic minorities. They continue to elect minority candidates to various state and local offices, including the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, school boards and the Legislature.

No matter how the diversity fish barrel is sorted out, the vast majority of city residents are unprejudiced and coexist harmoniously with each other.

Nevertheless, there are always those who benefit from making division out of diversity. Aside from those collecting nearly $600,000 from city taxpayers in legal fees, who actually benefits from the outcome of this lawsuit?

Certainly, people whose political ambitions exceed their citywide appeal. They will have increased opportunity to realize their ambitions by having a much smaller electorate to convince of their worthiness for office.

This will increase the chances to have council members whose focus and allegiances are more parochial than comprehensive. For a city that can be covered in an afternoon’s bicycle ride, districts are more detrimental than necessary. They will be boundaries straddling municipal unity and Balkanization.

By legally bullying the city into a district system, a small group of people has essentially overruled the majority of Santa Barbara residents who may have preferred the at-large system but did not get the chance to vote on it.

Minority rights should not mean depriving the majority of democracy, but in this case the race card is apparently an ace.

— Randy Alcorn is a Santa Barbara political observer. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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