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Compton's Measure B: How district elections could change 'racially polarized' voting

Screen shot of a race and ethnicity map of the Compton area from a New York Times interactive mapping project. Blue dots represent black residents, yellow dots represent Latinos. Each dot represents 25 people.
Screen shot of a race and ethnicity map of the Compton area from a New York Times interactive mapping project. Blue dots represent black residents, yellow dots represent Latinos. Each dot represents 25 people.

A measure in Compton that came out of a lawsuit seeking greater political representation for Latinos in the city passed by a clear margin in yesterday's California primary election. And while there's no guarantee it will boost voter turnout in city elections, it's worth taking a look at some of the changes to come.

The 2010 lawsuit, which claimed a pattern of racially polarized voting, landed Compton in the national news. The problems it alleged were seen as symbolic of the cultural and political struggles that have ensued in formerly black regions of Los Angeles County that are now predominantly Latino, including neighboring Lynwood. In Compton, formerly majority black, the population is now two-thirds Latino.

The back story: In December 2010, three Latina residents sued the city under the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, claiming that Compton’s at-large city elections violated Latinos’ civil rights by diluting their voting power. Although the city is majority Latino, city council members have traditionally been black, and Latinos have historically had trouble winning elected office. (One sticking point in the lawsuit, as plaintiffs argued the lack of Latino representation, was the racial identity of a council member elected in 2011 who is of black and Spanish ancestry.)

A settlement in February led to Compton Measure B being placed on the June ballot; the measure passed yesterday by a margin of more than 1,000 votes, with 100 percent of precincts reporting. So how will this change the way Compton votes? Critics of at-large voting say that system dilutes representation, while district-restricted voting places more attention on particular neighborhoods and gives new candidates a better chance of winning.

The National League of Cities has this handy breakdown of how both systems work:


All at-large members are elected to serve the same constituency, which is the population of the city as a whole.  At-large election proponents favor having council members elected by the entire city because:

  • Council members in an at-large system can be more impartial, rise above the limited perspective of a single district and concern themselves with the problems of the whole community.

  • Vote trading between councilmembers is minimized.

  • Better-qualified individuals are elected to the council because the candidate pool is larger.

However, at-large elections can weaken the representation of particular groups, especially if the group does not have a citywide base of operations or is an ethnic or racial group concentrated in a specific ward.

These elections select a single council member from a corresponding geographical section of the city, called a district or ward. District election proponents favor having council members elected to represent individual wards because:

  • District elections give all legitimate groups, especially those with a geographic base, a better chance of being represented on the city council, especially minority groups. Several court decisions have forced jurisdictions to switch from at-large elections to district elections, and in most cases the reason was to allow more representation by specific ethnic and racial groups (see: Springfield, IL, 1987 and Dallas, TX,1990; see also amendments by the U.S. Congress to the Voting Rights Act, 1982).

  • District councilmembers are more sensitive to the small but important problems of their consituents, like waste disposal.

  • District elections may improve citizen participation because councilmen who represent a specific district may be more responsive to their constituency.

However, councils elected by district elections may experience more infighting and be less likely to prioritize the good of the city over the good of their district.

A relatively small number of voters turned out to vote on Measure B, and critics of changing the way Compton votes have pointed to how many Latinos in the city actually get to the polls, or don't. The Los Angeles Times reported when the lawsuit was filed in 2010 that although Latinos "make up a numerical majority in Compton, a city of roughly 94,000 residents, they still are only 43% of eligible voters," with many residents not yet citizens.