Cities all over California are switching to district-based elections.

Santa Barbara has already held three of them to elect City Council members, and the transition has not delivered on all the hopes and promises of higher turnout and more equitable participation.

But it’s a start.

The current City Council is more diverse, in terms of ethnicity, age and gender, than the governing bodies before the switch to districts.

While every area of the city directly elects someone to the City Council, voters — including the ones in historically underrepresented neighborhoods — only vote for one of six members now, instead of casting a ballot for every seat.

Even advocates of district elections, including plaintiffs in the lawsuit that prompted the change, say there is work to be done to improve voter and candidate participation, and create a city government that better represents all of its residents.

Earlier this year, Noozhawk started a reporting project to analyze the goals and outcomes of the new election system, so far, and the lessons Santa Barbara holds for the many cities planning to make the switch.

We applied for and received a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network to help fund our ambitious plan and provide feedback along the way.

Noozhawk has been a member newsroom of SJN for a few years, and I invited journalist Michelle Faust Raghavan, the organization’s West Coast region manager, to town earlier this year to do a newsroom training for us and other local news organizations.

Solutions journalism investigates responses to social problems, and it encourages reporters to ask what’s going right, and who’s doing something better.

The pitch for this district elections project — which was submitted in February — included in-person reader engagement, which cannot happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, we are trying out Google Forms to get online feedback and questions from readers like you, and we hope to use it a lot more in the future to engage readers in our coverage.

Scroll down to get started now, and let us know what you think of district elections.

Why We Chose This Topic

Santa Barbara City Council member district map

Each of the six Santa Barbara City Council members is elected by a district, based on a map adopted in 2015. The mayor is still elected by voters citywide. (Noozhawk photo illustration)

Santa Barbara made the transition to district elections for its City Council members in 2015 after being served with a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit.

The settlement included paying $600,000 of taxpayer money for the plaintiffs’ attorney fees. After being threatened with similar lawsuits, other local municipalities adopted district elections to avoid those kinds of costs.

Throughout California, cities, school districts and special districts are considering the change.

In Santa Barbara, district elections were supposed to increase the number of Latino representatives on the City Council, as well as unconventional candidates who likely couldn’t get elected in an at-large system.

Proponents also touted them as a way to increase voter turnout and reduce the amount of money and special interests in campaigns.

We wanted to investigate the reality of Santa Barbara’s new system, and use a solutions journalism approach to research the success or failure of this and other methods to increase voter and candidate participation in local government elections.

The lessons learned in Santa Barbara will have real impact, since district elections are being implemented in communities all over California.

They are not a fix to all the issues proponents have claimed them to be, and more voter engagement methods are probably necessary to increase participation by qualified candidates and voters due to systemic access issues that include incumbency, money and party politics in nonpartisan races.

The Series

» 5 Years Later, Santa Barbarans Reflect on Goals, Outcomes of Switch to District Elections

» District Election Advocates Say There’s Still Work to Do to Improve Neighborhood Representation

» Recruitment, Training Programs Help Increase Representation Among Women, Latino Candidates

» Goleta’s Public Engagement Commission Tasked with Increasing Participation in Local Government

» District Elections Did Not Increase Santa Barbara Turnout Much, But Even-Year Voting Should Help

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at