For years, Barry Pollard has been meeting with a group of engaged neighbors over coffee to discuss life and community issues. The longtime leader from southeastern San Diego calls the group his “personal think tank,” because often those conversations inspire his work. The group helps him process things that are happening and offer innovative solutions to issues. A recent meet up was no different as they dwelled on redistricting.
Pollard had been frustrated with the process this year – with the coded racism many speakers and commissioners used in meetings and the obstacles communities of color experienced in trying to increase their voting power. But then one of the men – someone who had long been involved in labor and lives in Emerald Hills – said something that stopped the group’s conversation in its tracks.
What if they got rid of city council districts and had all council seats be elected at-large – or in simpler terms, by the entire city?
“If they keep jacking around with this gerrymandering, we’ll throw this system all away and open these city council districts to citywide elections,” Pollard said in an interview.
In 1988, San Diego voters approved a system that would elect city councilmembers by district. Back then, it made sense for communities of color to advocate for districts so they could consolidate their power, Pollard said.
But today, the game has changed, he said. Pushing district elections made sense when communities of color remained “minorities” population-wise and relegated to segregated communities south of Interstate 8. Today, the city is majority non-White, and Latinos and Asians, in particular, are growing in areas throughout the city.
The city of San Diego is 53 percent non-White, according to 2020 Census data. White voters still account for a slight majority of the city’s voting-age population, making up just over 51 percent of the city. But that is based on a 2019 survey, not 2020 Census data, due to delays in the data release this year. And that number is expected to change, since the region’s Latino and Asian populations are expected to grow.
“The numbers are the numbers,” Pollard said. “The minorities are going to be the majority.”
Pollard sees the solution to what he sees as a broken redistricting process is getting rid of districts all together. Others, though, think the answer is increasing the number of citywide districts in hopes that each city councilmember could be more representative of the population they are supposed to serve if they are representing fewer people.
“If you have more districts, you have more options and opportunities to create appropriate representation,” said Adrian Kwiatkowski, a lobbyist who recently ran for city council. “It seems like a natural evolution of local government to try to have as many voices to participate in the process as possible.”
Kwiatkowaski was on the charter review committee that recommended the city add a ninth councilmember in 2010. Before then and since 1963, when voters approved an addition of two councilmembers, the city had eight.
But in 2010, San Diego voters approved a ninth city council district – along with making the strong mayor form of government permanent – which was then created during the 2011 redistricting process.
District 9 – the new district – became the city’s second Latino empowerment district, along with District 8. Its slight Latino majority improved its chances of electing a Latino, and of making the City Council more representative of the city’s population.
The charter review committee initially proposed adding three new districts, before settling on the proposal to add just one.
Kwiatkowski said that decision was largely political – it was easier to sell the expense of just one additional city councilmember and their staff. Back then, they estimated that a cost of a new Council office would be roughly another $1 million.
“When we think of the City Council, we think of people who should have deep community connections, who need to know what’s going on in the neighborhood, who are responsible for potholes, streetlights, the community feel and investment,” said Emily Serafy-Cox, who was the executive director of an organization called EMPOWER San Diego and worked with several marginalized communities throughout the city to create a map during the 2011 redistricting process that included the creation of the second Latino empowerment district. “It’s hard to do that in a council district that is the size of the Council districts in San Diego and it’s hard to do that when you have to raise a quarter-million in order to get elected to the City Council.”
Kwiatkowski said from his own personal experience, it’s impossible for candidates to go door-to-door to talk to voters and constituents.
“I would encourage the mayor and city council to empanel a committee or task force to look into this issue and come back with a report to have a robust discussion on the issue,” he said. “When it comes down to it – the cost of representation and democracy, how do you value that?”
With the latest districts drawn, San Diego’s Council districts include anywhere from roughly 149,000 to just under 159,000 people.
Some cities have more representatives per capita than San Diego. Long Beach, for example, has nine council members who represent districts, but a population of 491,564, compared to San Diego’s population of 1.41 million. Dallas, Texas, which has a population of 1.33 million, has 14 city councilmembers.
The two largest city councils in the country are in New York City and Chicago, which have 51 and 50 members respectively.
But there are also cities comparable to San Diego, or where officials represent even more constituents. Each of Los Angeles’ 15 city council members, for example, represent roughly 260,000 people.
There’s no agreement on what an ideal constituent-to-politician ratio should look like. During the Constitutional Convention, George Washington said members of the House of Representatives representing 40,000 people would be too much – and lowered that number to 30,000 people per representative. Today, members of the House of Representatives represent 747,000 or so people.
“It’s interesting no one has ever come up with an adequate number,” said James Ingram, a political science professor at San Diego State University, who has been involved in the revision of several California city charters.
Ingram said adding council districts is generally unpopular politically. When he was involved in Los Angeles’ city charter change in the 1990s, they specifically separated the proposal to increase the size of the council into a separate ballot measure so it wouldn’t tank some of the other changes. Indeed, the measure to increase the council size failed, while the other measure passed.
“The idea of having more politicians makes it difficult,” Ingram said. “It’s unpopular because you’re increasing money spent on salaries – the number of staff, the number of offices.”
Ingram said he was surprised San Diego voters approved a ninth district, but suspects it was because having an even number of councilmembers once the mayor was no longer part of the council could lead to tied votes, including votes to override a mayoral veto.
While more districts may provide more opportunities for marginalized communities to elect their representatives of choice, Ingram said it could also dilute the power of each councilmember, which could have a negative impact on marginalized communities that aren’t growing. For example, if there is only one Black representative on council regardless of the number of districts, his or her vote would have more weight in a council of nine members than one of eleven members.
“I don’t think the drawbacks will significantly outweigh the advantages,” said Serafy-Cox.
What it comes down to – even with more districts – is how you redistrict, she said, and whether you redistrict in a way that is representative of the city.
But that’s why Pollard doesn’t think more districts are the answer. He doesn’t trust the redistricting process.
“It would be more of the same,” he said. “Just another district to play around with. It’s just going to be more gerrymandering. People are going to do anything they can to slow down this powershift.”