Richmond City Council to discuss possible move to district elections Tuesday

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A proposal to switch from an “at-large” to “district-based” elections system in Richmond, which supporters say will lead to more equal representation for all neighborhoods, is set to be discussed at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Under the current system, city council members are elected “at large,” meaning every Richmond voter can vote for every candidate for city council no matter where the voter or candidate lives.

Under the proposed “district” system, candidates would represent the district where they reside in the city. Voters would vote only on the council seat representing their district.

On Tuesday, City Council will consider whether to direct city staff to research the feasibility of the district system.

Supporters of district elections argue that candidates living in the wealthiest areas,  or who are backed by powerful special interest groups, stand the best chance to win at large elections, thus encouraging under-representation in neighborhoods.

Opponents of district elections contend such a system pits neighborhoods against neighborhoods at the expense of citywide goals. They also argue the proposed system would reduce the quality of candidates elected to council, as a losing candidate in one district may be more qualified, and desired by more voters citywide, than a winning candidate in another.

The debate over district elections is going on in several Southern California cities (see Los Angeles Times article). Voters in Anaheim voted in favor of council districts following a lawsuit, which stated the city’s mostly white council was discriminating against predominantly Latino neighborhoods.

This spring, Glendale voters will decide on whether to leave the at-large system. Last week, the city of Fullerton was sued over the at-large system on behalf of Asian Americans, who make up nearly a quarter of the city’s population but have no members on council, according to the Times.

Richmond elects six council members, with a seventh vote coming from the mayor. Of the six council members, three are black, one is Latino, another is white and the other Indian American.

Switching to a district-based system in Richmond would have to occur at the ballot box, and it could be costly. Information from Richmond’s city clerk and the city of Merced, which is also considering the change, indicates the cost could exceed $500,000.

“This figure includes all expenditures, including staff time, districting consultants, community organization groups, and election costs for a ballot measure,” according to city officials.

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