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Republicans Will Win Council Majority – and Redistricting Is Why

Although the primary election is still months away, I’ll go out on a limb now to make a prediction: Ray Ellis [1] will win the District 1 City Council seat in June, giving Republicans their first Council majority in more than two decades.

Discerning meaning from election results is like taking a Rorschach test [2] – everyone sees what they want to see [3]. Some will no doubt interpret the outcome as a referendum on Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s leadership; others will blame ex-Mayor Bob Filner for sullying the Democratic brand in San Diego. Perhaps others will point to Ellis’s impressive (or Barbara Bry [4]’s disappointing) campaign performance.

Don’t pay much attention to these explanations. The outcome of this year’s election was largely predetermined five years ago: The credit – or blame, depending on your point of view – goes to the San Diego Redistricting Commission [5], the seven-member citizen group that’s formed every 10 years to set new boundaries for City Council districts. The maps the commission drew in 2011 made it very hard for Democrats to translate their large voter majorities into a sufficient number of City Council victories.

Although Democrats have a huge voter registration advantage [6] in San Diego – and President Barack Obama carried the city by overwhelming margins in 2008 and 2012 – Democratic voters are concentrated in a few Council districts in the southern part of the city. Indeed, David Alvarez’s and Marti Emerald’s districts are so blue that the San Diego County Republican Party has stopped bothering [7] to field credible candidates there.

The downside to concentrating so many Democratic voters in a few safe seats is that it leaves too few Democrats for the remaining Council districts. Thus, although Democrats still have modest voter registration pluralities in Districts 1, 2, 6 and 7, these districts can easily be won by Republicans because Republican turnout tends to be higher (especially in non-presidential election years) and Democrats tend to drop off at higher rates. Indeed, Republicans currently control three of these four districts, and will add District 1 to their column in June. I hate to say “I told you so,” but I made this prediction five years ago [8], after the Redistricting Commission adopted its final maps [9].

In other words, a great number of the Democratic votes in San Diego City Council elections end up being wasted because Democratic voters are packed into a small number of uncompetitive Council seats. Normally, this would be a telltale sign [10] of partisan gerrymandering – an effort by one party to intentionally screw the electoral prospects of its opponents. In San Diego, however, the political pain is entirely self-induced.

After all, Democrats had a sizeable presence [11] on the Redistricting Commission, and the final maps the commission adopted followed closely the preferred progressive blueprint drawn up by community groups with the assistance of longtime Democratic operative Vince Hall. The problem is that the Democrats put much of their energy into divvying up political power among their core constituencies – finding a way to preserve the existing LGBT and black Council districts while creating a second majority-Latino district. Doing so required packing Democratic voters inefficiently into a few Council seats, creating an unfavorable anti-Democratic gerrymander citywide.

In my urban politics [12] class, I point to San Diego’s redistricting experience as a perfect example of the dilemma that is likely to confront Democrats in more and more cities. As America’s urban areas become increasingly diverse, leaving no racial or ethnic group with a voting majority, winning elections will require cooperation and coalition-building. The danger is that Democratic-aligned groups will focus too much on descriptive representation, or electing representatives that look like them, rather than substantive representation around their shared policy priorities.

When Republicans take control of the City Council in June, San Diego Democratic leaders and activists will need to seriously ask themselves whether having four LGBT, black and Latino Council members who make up a permanent Council minority and have little influence over actual policy outcomes is really the kind of representation that serves their constituents.

Clarification: This column has been updated to reflect that Vince Hall was not, as originally implied, the major or sole architect of the preferred maps of Democrats and progressives. 

Vladimir Kogan [13] is an assistant professor of political science at the Ohio State University and co-author of “Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Governance Failures in San Diego [14].” Kogan’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here [15].