The tragedy of LA’s rotten racial politics? There’s a real solution
LA could choose proportional representation to elect multi-racial diversity. And no, an independent redistricting commission will not fix it.
When I first heard about the latest hot mic scandal revealing raw, naked racial politics in Los Angeles, the lyrics and melody to an old Sly and the Family Stone song popped into mind:
“There is a yellow one that won't accept the black one
That won't accept the red one, that won't accept the white one
Different strokes for different folks”
The hopefulness of the lyrics compared to Angeleno reality was jarring. My mind seemed to be groping for a more tranquil corner as respite from the surly, shocking diatribes of the three Latino elected officials and a top labor leader, sneering against Blacks, gays, Whites, indigenous people and an innocent three-year-old child (see direct quotes below).
There are three lessons to learn from this raging racial tempest. Much media coverage has been devoted to two of the lessons, but the third remains unrecognized.
The first lesson is that racism from any quarter is ugly and unacceptable, especially from elected leaders who hold the public trust.
The second lesson is that the redistricting process is nasty and crooked, especially when left in the self-interested hands of those same elected leaders. No big city should allow that.
But the third lesson has not been discussed or absorbed at all – that both redistricting corruption and racist turf wars are exponentially magnified by the use of “winner-take-all” district elections.
Mayoral candidate and Congresswoman Karen Bass, after calling on city council members Nury Martinez, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo to resign, stated: “To move forward as a city, we must move past the politics of divide and conquer.”
But Rep. Bass’s statement misses the point: the very essence of representation based on geographic districts is “divide and conquer.” This method is called “winner-take-all” for a reason: if one side wins, the other side loses. In this all-or-nothing dragnet, the types of conversations heard on the clandestine recording, over which the public is understandably shocked, are all too common across California, indeed across the nation.
Listen closely to the audio of their conversation. Lurking beneath the deplorable language and personal tirades is a focus on a political game – redistricting, the redrawing of legislative lines – in which only one racial group can win, and the others must lose (warning: close your eyes if you can’t handle crass vulgarity).
Labor boss Ron Herrera: “We’re like a little Latino caucus of our own…I get what we have to do. Just massage to create districts that benefit you all.”
City councilwoman Nury Martinez: “The African-Americans look at this as a hostile takeover…. We’ll have to figure that shit out, because politically they are going to come after us.”
City councilman Gil Cedillo: “The 25 Blacks are shouting, but they shout like they’re 250. When there’s 100 of us.”
Herrera: “Fuck, the way I see it, all of the seats are Latino.”
Martinez: “Fuck that guy, he’s with the Blacks.”
The players in this winner-take-all board game know that when you have geographic-based representation by districts, only one side can win. Will it be Latinos? Blacks? Asians? Whites? Democrats? Republicans?
There is a blue one who can't accept the green one
For living with a fat one, tryin’ to be a skinny one
Different strokes for different folks
We got to live together
Gotta live together, indeed. Yet nothing magnifies the turf wars, whether between different racial groups, downtown vs. neighborhood interests, progressives vs. moderates vs. conservatives, or housing and education advocates, more than this “if I win, you lose” brand of politics. Redistricting battles in many cities have produced corrosive bitterness as each minority group and community of interest claws for its share of a limited commodity: political representation. The shortcomings of this approach are increasingly hard to ignore.
Better representation in a “multi-everything city” like LA
But what if there is a method in which all sides, all racial groups, all constituencies and groupings of voters, can win their fair share of representation? Wouldn’t that be a better way to go?
A “multi-everything city” like Los Angeles needs to use a better democratic method that is not based on these toxic winner-take-all dynamics. If LA based its elections on the bedrock of what is known as proportional voting, that would greatly reduce these kinds of turf wars in favor of “full representation for all.”
Proportional ranked choice voting (P-RCV) is a nonpartisan, candidate-based electoral method. Instead of having 15 winner-take-all district seats, Los Angeles could use five multi-seat districts with three seats each. Any candidate that receives 25% of the vote in one of those three-seat districts would win a seat. And groupings of like-minded voters would be able to elect winners in proportion to their share of the popular vote.
For example, in each district, if a perspective such as Latino or African-American, or liberal, conservative or moderate, wins over a majority of the voters, they will win two of the three seats, instead of 100% of the representation; while another 25% perspective will win the remaining seat. Virtually every Angeleno, wherever they live, would be able to vote for a winning candidate.
That configuration still allows a degree of neighborhood-based representation, but it is combined with broader city-regional representation. It offers the best of both worlds. Each three-seat district would be competitive for several political viewpoints, and coalitions would be able to form fluidly in response to the pressing issues of the day, instead of in backroom deals with racial arm twisting over district lines that don’t change for 10 years.
Proportional ranked choice voting also allows voters to express the complex racial-ethnic and political identities that so many Americans align with today. A Black conservative, a gay Latino, Asian American businesswoman or white nurse, may not fit neatly into the usual categories of race. Ranked ballots allow voters to, in effect, “district themselves” by expressing who they are via their rankings. The ranked ballots liberate voters to pick their favorite candidates, and prevent spoiler candidates and split votes from distorting the election results.
About 200 jurisdictions across the US have adopted some form of proportional voting, usually to resolve voting rights disputes over minority representation. Rather than going this route, the Los Angeles city council seems ready to ask voters to change the city charter so that the council would no longer have the power to oversee its own redistricting.
But other cities, like San Francisco, already have done that. And yet this past spring San Francisco experienced a brutal redistricting battle between competing racial groups and political factions. The redistricting task force found itself bedeviled by the same racial dogfight between Chinese, Black and Latino communities, trying to decide who was more deserving of representation.
The truth is, everyone deserves representation. But winner-take-all district elections can never deliver that. Clearly, as our multi-everything cities continue to “rainbowize,” proportional voting promises authentic representation to more individuals and constituencies, as well as the best chance for realizing a colorful mosaic that both respects differences and knits them together into a more unified whole.
Los Angeles should follow the example of Portland, OR where a multi-racial charter commission voted 17-3 to allow voters to weigh in this November on a charter amendment to implement proportional ranked choice voting.
Rather than continuing this bitter clash over “if I win, you lose,” Los Angeles should embrace the Golden Rule of Representation: “Give unto others the representation you would have them give unto you.”
Steven Hill @StevenHill1776
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