By Loren Collingwood (University of California, Riverside) and Sean Long (University of California, Riverside)
California passed its own version of the Voting Rights Act (CVRA) in 2001, aiming to diversify local elected offices. At the time, 449 of California’s 476 cities employed at-large districts to elect candidates to the city council. The CVRA compels at-large cities to transition their city council elections to a by-district basis if plaintiffs can demonstrate the presence of racially polarized voting (i.e., Latinos preferring one candidate, and Whites/Anglos another).
The CVRA is critical to diversifying local offices because previous research finds that at-large systems produce less racially diverse bodies. However, we do not know whether state laws such as the CVRA have worked as intended. While the first decade of the CVRA saw very little action, advocacy organizations and law firms have begun pressuring cities to transition. This campaign escalated in the wake of several successful multi-million-dollar lawsuits that forced cities like Palmdale to shift from electing city councilors at-large to single member district. Palmdale exemplifies our findings as it proceeded to add two minority council members following the transition, instead of their historically all-White council.
To conduct our research, we employ a methodological approach that has been notably lacking in research on city council elections. First, we collected data on which cities had switched from at-large to single member districts since the CVRA’s passage. We then matched each city that had switched against its most comparable city that had not transitioned to by-district elections. This necessitated researching each city in California to determine their election style, as well as when by-district cities transitioned. When it was not possible to find clear sources, we called city clerks.
Our matching design paired transitioned (treated) cities with at-large (control) cities based on a series of demographic, political, and public opinion measures. For instance, racial and ethnic demographics were of course important, but so were median income, age, education rates, and city size. Similarly, we wanted to make sure that cities had comparable levels of Republican or Democratic voters. Finally, we included a measure of racial animus by incorporating public opinion data from multiple large-scale national surveys.
Our data collection then extended each dyad’s city council demographics over at least four elections. These covered the first election after the treated city transitioned to by-district, and the last three elections before each city decided to transition. By going several election cycles back, we identified whether any changes were the result of long-term trends rather than the changes induced by the CVRA. Then, we contacted city clerk offices at each city to get lists of city council members and individually researched each member to infer their race or ethnicity. This allowed us to construct parallel timelines between treated and controlled cities and to measure whether there was a significant change in the treated cities, relative to any trends of the controlled cities. Finally, to estimate as precise a treatment effect as possible, we estimate a difference in difference regression by comparing the difference in city council racial representation between treatment and control cities before and after the treated cities switched to single member district.
Overall, we find that treated city councils became 10 to 12 percent more diverse after transitioning to by-district elections. This amounts to a half a seat change, or rather, a full seat change in about half of the cities. Importantly, when we subset cities to those that had high Latino populations, our marginal effect becomes 21 percent. Our research therefore shows that the CVRA has been successful in promoting diversity on cities councils, especially when those cities have large populations of ethnic minorities. However, it must also be emphasized that for the CVRA and similar laws to succeed, they must be paired with legal pressure from activists and lawyers to actually enforce the law.
Loren Collingwood is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at University of California, Riverside. He is the author of Sanctuary Cities: The Politics of Refuge (2019) and Campaigning in a Racially Diversifying America:
When and How Cross-Racial Electoral Mobilization Works (2019) both with Oxford University Press.
Sean Long is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at University of California, Riverside. His research interests include American politics, right-wing politics, and political methodology.