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To Aid Minority Representation, California Cities Change How They Elect City Councils


Are elections for local city council in your area at large or by district? The answer could determine how your council looks and thinks. In California, lots of cities used to have citywide elections, and that prompted activists to threaten lawsuits for violating the voting rights of minorities. Claire Trageser of member station KPBS reports from San Diego.


CLAIRE TRAGESER, BYLINE: It's early evening in the San Diego suburb of El Cajon, and a group of mostly Middle Eastern immigrants are pouring over maps of bus routes. They're talking about El Cajon's transportation plan and want their new city to be more like the cities they came from.

MOHAMMED TUAMA: We worked on how we can make our community walkable.

TRAGESER: Mohammed Tuama is a leader of the group.

TUAMA: The streetlights. And we're working with the city on this, the crosswalks. And we did a project on this.

TRAGESER: Soon, Tuama hopes to have an advocate on their city council. That's because El Cajon recently switched to district elections, which gives the Middle Eastern community a chance to elect a candidate from their neighborhood.

TUAMA: We have someone but we're trying to see if that person can be more involved because we don't really - it's not only about someone from our community. But we need someone who's really knowledgeable.

TRAGESER: About a fifth of California cities have switched to district elections in recent years. And after the change, just under half elected more minority council members. But it's not enough for a city to just switch to district elections, says Douglas Johnson, the president of National Demographics Corporation, which helps cities draw district maps.

DOUGLAS JOHNSON: It actually needs to be diverse but a pocket. It has to be kind of geographically concentrated.

TRAGESER: And even if minority candidates run, they have to win the election. For example, Johnson says Modesto finally drew districts after a long legal battle. But the one Latino candidate who ran didn't have a strong election strategy.

JOHNSON: One ran. But he had a MySpace page that was half why I love Sandra Bullock movies and half why I'm running for city council.

CONSUELO MARTINEZ: Congratulations. So when is the due date?




TRAGESER: City Councilwoman Consuelo Martinez did win last year in Escondido, a suburb of San Diego. She recently made the rounds in a busy neighborhood park, stopping to talk to a young couple and running into friends holding a birthday party.

MARTINEZ: Talk about perfect timing. I'm like, I always run into people at the park.

TRAGESER: Escondido used to elect its council members citywide. But the ACLU sued the city, saying that election system dampened minority voices. So, in 2014, the city drew districts, including one with a slight majority of Latinos. Four years later, Martinez was elected in that district.

MARTINEZ: People would say, you're the first person who's ever knocked on my door to ask my vote. And that was really sad to me because some of them had been living in the city for 25 years, at least.

TRAGESER: In her first six months in office, Martinez moved city council meetings to 6 p.m. so working people can attend. She also got a water treatment plant slated for her district moved to an industrial area, which meant a lot to one of her constituents, Daisy Zavala (ph).

DAISY ZAVALA: When she came in, she was like, we're not going to do that. We're going to remove that. We're going to move that somewhere else because our community deserves better.

TRAGESER: She says Martinez makes her feel like she's being heard.

For NPR News, I'm Claire Trageser in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "7TH SEVENS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claire Trageser