The Magic Single-Member District Unicorn will believe anything.

The Magic Single-Member District Unicorn will believe anything.

The drive for single-member council districts in Anaheim is fueled by racial/ethnic politics. The ACLU and Jose Moreno based their lawsuit against the city on the California Voting Rights Act, a radical 2002 law that seeks to make representation in local government by race and ethnicity an end itself. The refrain at single-member districts rallies is for an Anaheim City Council that “looks like” the residents, i.e. reflects their pigmentation more than their politics.

There is a small contingent of Republicans acting as skirmishers for the left-wing coalition pushing single-member districts who are uncomfortable with the racial politics of their fellow coalition members. They to argue that the expense of a traditional direct-mail campaign in a city as populous as Anaheim favors candidates supported by “special interests” )i.e., candidates who know how to raise money), and switching to single-member council districts will negate their funding advantage over candidates waging grass-roots, precinct-walking campaigns.

It’s an appealing argument because there is some truth it. Candidates with less money but lots of shoe leather have a greater chance of winning in a single-member district because they can make face-to-face contact with a higher percentage of voters in the time-frame of a campaign than if they were campaigning city-wide.

However, it is true more in abstract than in reality.

The reality is single-member districts do not diminish the impact of special-interest money, but will merely allow special interests to spend less by targeting their money on voters in one or two districts rather than spending it city-wide.  A business or a union IE committee can have the same impact on electing two candidates while spending significantly less than they would in an at-large election.

And in a situation where two or more candidates are running intensive grass-roots campaigns but only one is raising money and/or being supported by independent expenditures, the grass-roots-only candidate remains at a relative disadvantage.

This faith that single-member districts will reduce the influence of money in council elections is as misplaced as the belief that only well-funded candidates can win. John Leos’ defeats in the 2010 and 2012 council elections – despite the Orange County Employees Association expenditure of almost a million dollars on his behalf – refutes that notion. By contrast, Jennifer Rivera spent less than $1,000 (if anything at all) and hardly campaigned, but did nearly as well as Leos, while finishing ahead of well-funded Steve Chavez Lodge.

In 2010, Robert Nelson spent a mere $5,181 and finished ahead of Hoagy Holguin – an elected member of the Anaheim Union High School District who spent more than $76,000.

The fixation on manipulating the rules and structure of council elections tends to overlook how the mysterious vagaries of voters’ thinking influences the outcomes – as well as the reality that lots of money can’t make a bad candidate into a good one, and that a good candidate can overcome relatively weak fundraising.