Single-Member Council District Myths: Reducing The Importance of Money

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.

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  1. Nice post, Matt.

    Curious– given that the 2002 state law is so heavily biased to provide legal and financial incentive in favor of districting, how much of a fool’s errand is it to oppose it at the local level?

    In other words, if this ballot initiative fails, how much will the next lawsuit cost? The one after that?

    Opposition to this law ought to be directed at Sacramento. I don’t think that debating the merits of districts at the local level really does much to change the inevitability of what’s to come.

    Ethnicity issues aside, I think you’ve framed up the issue well. Do voters believe that neighborhood focused representation brings positive change to local government? What does that change look like?

    Is it about money in politics or is it about something else?

    Money is obviously part of it. What isn’t discussed here is enhancing neighborhood identity, which gets balanced by “balkanization”. Given Anaheim’s population and geography, perhaps that ought to be the appropriate conversation.

  2. The people who complain too much don’t even bother
    to show up at their neighborhood council meetings so
    the joke is they also have that form of local
    representation but they don’t care enough
    to be a part of it!

  3. BigBoxOfRedWhine

    A few disturbing, if not impartial, impressions I am left with from hearing the frustrated residents at Council Comments who seem to see Districts as a panacea (or step toward one) for their “doorstep issues” (percieved inequalities in resource distribution and quality of life, in THEIR neighborhoods). First, the considerable OVERHEAD of implementation ( consulting, mapping, court challenges on borders, possible ‘satellite’ offices, etc.), reduces the WHOLE pie, BEFORE making ANY changes, (‘fair’ or not!), in how the slices are cut. Look at District Cities. And that is ONGOING, once the system is bought into.
    Second, the implication that (smaller) districts will even the playing field against ‘big money influences’ who ‘control’ outcomes, overlooks (at least) ONE unintended consequence- beyond ‘their’ indifference at writing several SMALL checks, instead of ONE LARGE one, ‘they’ actually SAVE MONEY, since ONLY a MAJORITY number of those smaller districts now have to be won, vs a CITY-WIDE race, or conversely, ‘they’ can INCREASE their spending in FEWER targeted districts, HARDLY an advantage for grass- roots opponents!
    Personally, if a change HAS to be imposed,( besides increasing the education, activity, and participation of (and candidates from) the ‘underrepresented’), I prefer more study of ‘Cumulative Voting’ or ‘Ranked Choice’ methods, (so far drowned out by the ‘Districting’ drumbeat) initially harder to grasp, but offering (besides, I believe, satisfaction of the Court) the opportunity (with WORK!) to concentrate voting power, WITH only initial changes in counting software (and some education!) but WITHOUT SURRENDERING VOTES as a price, OR the perpetual overhead of Districts. What they DO NOT deliver, is the implied transformation of Council Members into a hybrid of Superman, Santa Claus, and the postman, Fighting crime, delivering neighborhood benefits, and shaking hands door-to-door, but in reality, NEITHER DO DISTRICTS.

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