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The “City of Angels” is still reeling from its two-week old scandal over the devilish conundrum of how to provide adequate representation in this most multiracial of cities. Protesters are encamped at City Hall and shutting down city council meetings as they demand resignations from two of the remaining Latino city councilors who were caught in a hot mic moment using racial and homophobic insults. Local democracy is seismically buckling in Los Angeles.

The degrading language used by the city councilors deserves condemnation. Yet amidst all the scandal headlines an important realization is being lost. When you set aside the outrageous “Latino insider gossip” that was going on in that secretly mic’ed private meeting, these leaders were trying to grapple with a very real – and unfair – dilemma of the Los Angeles political landscape.

The current makeup of the 15 member LA City Council is four Latino councilors (27% of the council), three Black (20%), two Asian (13%) and six White (40%) (this count includes the Latina councilwoman who resigned in disgrace, and also Latino councilmember Gil Cedillo, who lost reelection and will be replaced soon by a councilwoman of Indian heritage). Compare that to the most recent US Census data, which says that the racial demographics of Los Angeles are 48% Latino, 8.8% Black, 11.8% Asian and 28.5% White.

Looking at this from the “fairness standard” of proportional representation – in which groupings of like-minded voters should be able to win representation in proportion to their voting strength – the Latino community should hold six or seven out of 15 city council seats, the Black community one council seat, Asians one or two seats and Whites four or five. In fact, two of the Black councilmembers, Curren Price and Marqueece Harris-Dawson, were elected from districts that were majority-minority Latino by voting age population (VAP). Price’s district was an eye popping 78% Latino by VAP.

Even if you factor in the difference between VAP and Citizen VAP, since some of those Latinos are not citizens and therefore ineligible to vote, it’s still pretty clear that Latinos are vastly underrepresented in LA, compared to African-Americans and Whites.

As a result of last year’s redistricting, in the middle of which this disgraceful clandestine discussion occurred, new districts have been drawn. Despite the obvious attempts at manipulation by the disgraced Latino leaders, Latinos still only have seven out of 15 majority-minority districts by VAP – the same as with the previous district lines – while Blacks with less than 9% of the population have zero majority-minority districts, also the same as before.

So if these Latino leaders were conspiring to create some Latino advantage, it appears that they were not very successful. They apparently didn’t increase their chances at all compared to the previous district lines.

Amidst all the headlines of outrage – again, certainly warranted – not many people I have spoken to about this actually took the time to listen to that controversial conversation, or read any of the transcripts. Instead, they focused on short clips and excerpts of the racist and homophobic comments. But when you set aside the repulsive talk in that conversation, it’s clear that this reality of Latino underrepresentation was the purpose of that meeting. The Latino leaders were trying to figure out how to draw district lines so that the Latino community would come closer to fair – that is, proportional – representation.

What should political reformers do?

In the aftermath of this scandal, a number of groups led by Common Cause have understandably called for an independent redistricting commission (IRC). They have expressed solidarity with the African American community, which was the target of much of the racism from the disgraced Latino leaders.

But the irony is that the current system — without an independent redistricting commission — has served the Black community quite well. With three out of 15 city councilors, they were very much at the table during the recent line drawing, protecting their interests. They and Whites have been punching above their weight, while Latinos have been punching below their weight, resulting in Latinos being the most grossly underrepresented racial group in the city. It’s very possible that the Black leadership, despite being aggrieved over the horrible things that were said, will not support an IRC, even while others in the Black community, motivated by their justifiable sense of outrage, will get behind such an effort. But the numbers are the numbers, and in reality the Black community may well lose representation if an IRC is put into place.

Given how the redistricting process has failed to provide fair Latino representation, one would think that the Latino community might get behind an IRC as a vehicle for overturning this electoral injustice. Nevertheless, I will be surprised if that is the case. When I testified before a charter commission in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, I remember having a conversation with a prominent Latino leader, a former attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the leading Latino legal and redistricting experts. He told me “Now it’s our turn to draw the districts. You White people did it long enough.” Indeed, it was that very mentality, decades in the making, that was present in the room with the foul-mouthed Latino city council members. Despite the shame of this incident, control of the redistricting process is a point of pride – a sign of political arrival – for Latino leaders in LA. It seems unlikely that they are about to give that up.

So it is very possible that this “reform moment,” as the Los Angeles Times and political reformers are calling it, will result in more paralysis. It remains to be seen what leadership, if any, will come together to corral these conflicting and contradictory tendencies in a way that can lead to something positive.

Indeed, can an Independent Redistricting Commission hope to wring some lemonade from these lemons? Maybe yes, maybe no. Several redistricting experts recently have studied the impacts of redistricting commissions following the 2022 redistricting across the country, and found it wanting. FairVote’s David Daley’s recent article “The good, the bad and the ugly of redistricting reform” shows that, despite reformers’ successful efforts in many states to pass IRC’s, nevertheless political insiders were able to capture control of many of those commissions in a way that rendered them toothless.

New America came out recently with a report that provides a systematic analysis of redistricting commissions. That report concludes that “while independent redistricting commissions do perform better than partisan state legislatures, the improvements are typically more marginal than the conventional wisdom would suggest.” Indeed San Francisco, where I live, saw a major IRC failure this past year, in which the mayor was able to capture the IRC, and her allies managed to set the Asian and Black communities at each other’s electoral throats. Some of San Francisco’s commission members were publicly saying similar things as the three Latino councilmembers said in private, but without the insults and racial slurs that generated so many headlines. They were openly discussing how Asians/Chinese deserved more representation and Blacks deserved less, based on population measures.

Certainly at the very least an IRC allows reformers to say that incumbents are no longer drawing their own districts, and that is a modest step toward reducing public cynicism. But Lee Drutman, senior fellow in the Political Reform Program at New America, reframes the redistricting challenge into a different type of dilemma: “While gerrymandering is undoubtedly a major concern, many of the problems attributed to gerrymandering are actually problems with districting, and more specifically with the use of the single-member district…We are forced to confront the severe limits of districting within the single-member district framework.”

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This observation certainly applies to the fraught political landscape in Los Angeles.

The boroughs of Los Angeles: representation in multi-seat districts

What if Los Angeles took a different approach? What if it jettisoned the use of “winner take all” single-seat districts entirely, and instead adopted a system of proportional representation using multi-seat districts elected by ranked choice voting?

Let’s close our eyes for a moment and imagine a different kind of democracy. Imagine if we increase the size of the city council from the current 15 seats to 27 – still a modest number compared to other large municipal governments in the US, such as similarly populated Chicago with 50 councilmembers and New York City with 51. Some people can’t stand politicians, and understandably will react, “Why would we want more of them?” But with each city councilmember in LA representing a quarter of a million people – compared to Chicago with 54,000 people per council seat and even New York City with 166,000 – part of the frustration that feeds the unpopularity of city government is likely driven by poor service.

Besides, in this new urban future we are not going to elect the city councilmembers the same old “winner take all” way. Instead, we are going to reduce the number of districts from 15 to 9, and instead of having one council member per district, there will be three.

Under the rules of proportional representation, when electing three seats at once, a candidate would need 25% of the vote to win one of those three seats. That key difference would open up representation to different constituency groups and communities of interest that can win a quarter of the vote in any of these nine districts.

If you look at the current city council district map of Los Angeles (link here), you can see some immediate benefits compared to the existing map and method. Using data for the estimated voting age population in each of these nine districts, the Latino community would be in a strong position to win one or two of the three seats in most of these districts. In two or three districts, the Black community would be in a solid position to win a seat, and in other districts the Black vote would be influential. The Asian vote also would be strong in several of these districts. In some districts you could end up with two Latinos elected and one African-American; or one Latino, one White councilmember and one Asian.

A lot more Angelenos, no matter their race or where they lived, would be able to cast a vote for their favorite candidates and see them win.

Just as tantalizing as this multi-racial cross-fertilization of politics and culture would be the idea of each of these nine multi-seat districts becoming a borough of the city. New York City is famous for its boroughs, each with its distinctive politics and culture. The boroughs of Los Angeles could play an instrumental role in revitalizing the severed connection between every day Angelenos and their city government.

Certain services could be placed into the hands of the boroughs, and carefully selected powers could be devolved. The vibrant neighborhood councils, which have become part of the fabric of LA politics, could be further empowered at the borough level.

Los Angeles, meet Portland

Sounds like a fantasy? Recently in Portland, Oregon a multi-racial charter commission voted 17-3 to allow voters to weigh in this November on an amendment to implement a borough-type system elected by proportional ranked choice voting. The commission had a choice of moving to a representation method based on single-seat districts, like LA uses. But they discovered a problem: Portland’s various racial minority constituencies were too geographically spread out with too many competing claims for everyone to benefit from drawing “majority-minority” districts. Plus, even if you could do that, what happens to the minority voters that don’t live in those gerrymandered districts? They end up with no representative, and out of luck.

So the Portland charter commission took another route. It adopted a system in which they will elect a total of 12 seats in four multi-seat districts of three seats each. That configuration creates some borough-like geographic representation combined with broader city-regional representation. Some of the findings of the Portland commission are particularly illuminating for LA’s situation. Here are quotes from one of its final reports:

“Multiple representatives per district addresses the fact that it's incredibly difficult for any one single elected individual to represent the diversity of viewpoints and experiences. Having multiple people allows for a greater chance that more viewpoints and experiences will be represented.”

“The Charter Commission believes multiple representatives per district will help community members connect directly with their elected leaders and increase accountability between Portlanders and elected leaders.”

“… could lend itself to more localized and neighborhood-based constituent services and civic participation that is not dependent on Portlanders' ability to access downtown.”

Portland’s charter commission was very much led by communities of color. Charter commission co-chair Gloria Cruz views their pioneering proposal as a giant step forward, given its racially-conflicted past. “I believe that we've been engaged in an exercise of creating space—space for a government that can practice another way of being,” she said. “And space for those who are marginalized to have more opportunity to participate in our democracy.”

Issues of political representation and community empowerment in multi-everything cities are delicate and complex, like the wings of a colorful butterfly. Much is at stake. A charter review commission, provided with a mandate to design a new electoral system for this multi-everything metropole of Angelenos, has great potential to weave LA into a colorful mosaic of neighborhoods and boroughs that both respect differences and knits them together into a more unified whole.

Crossposted from Democracy SOS