Saturday, August 4, 2012
A major news item here in Orange County has been the rash of protests in the county's largest and most well-known city, Anaheim, sparked by a pair of police shootings of two suspected Latino gang members. Activists and the media have drawn a link between the shootings and Anaheim's system for electing city councilmembers. In Anaheim, as in most cities in California, all five members of the city council (technically four members plus the mayor, but the mayor is really just a fifth councilmember who gets to hold the gavel at meetings) are elected at-large, meaning the city as a whole is a single electoral district and candidates can reside anywhere in the city. It has been alleged by the ACLU that the at-large system dilutes Latino voting power because it diminishes the ability of geographically concentrated groups (which often include minority communities) to elect representatives from their own neighborhoods, and places a premium on the ability to gather a huge war-chest, which advantages candidates with support from the more affluent constituencies. In Anaheim, indeed, there is not a single Latino member of the city council despite Latinos representing more than 50% of the city's population, and four of the five councilmembers live in Anaheim's wealthy, largely white "Anaheim hills" area. Thus, the argument goes, it is because the city government is out of touch with the concerns of its major constituency that incidents like these police shootings are able to happen.
This story hits home to me because I wrote an article a few years ago that made a very similar argument, although it was more focused on land use: The at-large electoral system deployed in most California cities means that neighborhoods have little voice on land use matters, which tends to favor the interests of the pro-development "growth machine." I further argued that this system tended to dilute minority voices on land use issues (especially eminent domain, of blessed memory). In my article, however, I argued that neighborhood interests did not simply fade away but necessarily expressed themselves outside the political system, either in the form of the initiative process or in the form of urban riots. Indeed, the famous anti-tax initiative Proposition 13 has been referred to (although I could not definitively verify the original quote) as "the Watts riot of the middle class." In the paper, I called for the jettisonning of the at-large system and the implementation of district or ward systems, which is precisely what the activists in Anaheim are calling for.
It appears in Anaheim we may be seeing "the Proposition 13 of the disenfranchised." Stay tuned.
Hat tip to my colleague Ernesto Hernandez-Lopez for some of these links and for alerting me to some of the details of the story.