The way Santa Cruz City residents elect the city council is changing in order to comply with state laws designed to increase equity in the electoral process. The City has many options for reform, but Measure E, a measure voters will be asked to consider in the next election, undermines the goals of increased democratic participation. Measure E exacerbates existing inequities and codifies lack of representation of marginalized communities.
Measure E, on the ballot in June, may, at first glance, seem innocuous, boring even, but voters should be aware of what this measure does and doesn’t do.
There is nothing in Measure E that ensures a mayor who is in touch with all the varied constituencies of the city. Measure E does not limit campaign spending nor provide for public funding of campaigns. It takes the most unfair aspects of our current system and amplifies them.
Several years ago, Santa Cruz was threatened with a lawsuit charging that the City’s “at-large” elections for city council are a violation of the California Voting Rights Act. The current city council decided not to fight the legal challenge and, to meet the terms of the settlement, began the move to district elections. Other reforms to increase equity and participation of underrepresented constituencies, like Ranked Choice Voting, were not considered, despite legal scholars agreeing they would meet the burden of the lawsuit.
Without Measure E, the city will likely complete the transition to creating seven equal districts, each electing one councilmember. Advocates argue that this change will repair our presently inequitable system of at-larger elections, most easily won by candidates with a lot of money and privilege, with poorer neighborhoods and marginalized communities rarely winning representation.
Days before the first public hearing on these seven districts, however, the city council voted to place Measure E on the ballot. If Measure E passes, the City will instead be split into only six districts, with the seventh spot being filled by an at-large mayor, a mayor who is still a “weak” mayor without any special powers or responsibilities. This means that with Measure E, there will always be one district that has two representatives instead of one.
If we had a strong mayor system, rather than a city manager, there would be a better argument for having a mayor who is elected by the whole city. This ballot measure doesn't do that. Instead, it guarantees that one district, a district that is likely wealthier, gets double representation for four years.
Proponents assert that anyone running for mayor will have to take into consideration the needs of the entire city, but empirically that is not the case. Often, the person who gets the most votes city-wide is one of the top spenders. By catering to the needs of wealthy donors, a mayoral candidate can secure an at-large win, while ignoring the needs of renters, working people, immigrants, and low-income folks struggling to make ends meet. There is nothing in Measure E that ensures a mayor who is in touch with all the varied constituencies of the city. Measure E does not limit campaign spending nor provide for public funding of campaigns. It takes the most unfair aspects of our current system and amplifies them.
Voting “no” means the mayor position will rotate around from one council member to another. A rotating mayor offers different perspectives, and the city benefits from different facilitation styles.
Santa Cruz is being forced to change, and we should be open to experimentation, finding what works, discarding what doesn’t. Measure E is a City Council-initiative to change the City Charter, meaning only another costly, time-consuming voter-initiative can undo it. It is too early in our transition away from at-large elections to cement an unfair, unproven strategy for conducting elections.
All voters who are interested in fairness and equity should vote “No!”
Stacey Falls is a member of DSA Santa Cruz.