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Viewpoint: Council got it right by prioritizing voting rights

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com 

When the city council concluded the redistricting process last Tuesday by adopting map 203, the decision likely disappointed many Claremont residents who hoped for a more radical reshaping of Claremont’s council districts.

Residents articulated a number of arguments for starting over, the most startling of which was the perception that power in the city was concentrated in the wealthy neighborhoods north of Base Line Road. The current map was labeled as inequitable because 60% of the city’s elected officials lived in an area that is home to just 20% of the city’s population. To combat this, several of the new district maps favored a “highly regional” approach, ensuring that each geographical area of Claremont would have its own representation.

One option, map 209, initially favored by those who wanted to see a complete reimagining of the council districts, created one large district above Base Line, two in the central part of town and one for the Village.

But drastically shifting boundaries came with drastic consequences, and map 209 was ultimately scrapped for its flaws, including shifting Mayor Jed Leano out of his own district, effectively preventing him from running for reelection. For this reason, most people who supported map 209 shifted their allegiance to other options such as map 208, which created two districts in the north and two in the central area.

But map 209’s biggest flaw lay in the effective disenfranchisement of 3,895 Claremont residents who were scheduled to vote in November’s local election.

The Claremont City Council selected map 203, which left current districts more or less the same while creating the low number of voter delays. Map 209, right, was a highly regional model that completely reimagined the districts but resulted in 3,895 voter delays.

 

For clarification, districts 2, 3 and 4 will vote this November, while districts 1 and 5 went to the polls in 2020 and will go again in 2024. Through redistricting, anyone moved from an area that votes this year to one that votes in two years will ultimately have waited six years, or two consecutive elections, to cast a ballot for city council. Conversely, anyone moved from district 1 or 5 into districts 2, 3 or 4 gets to vote an extra time. Douglas Johnson of National Demographic Corporation characterized this voter disruption as an unfortunate consequence of redistricting.

No matter how the lines were drawn, each map designed to make the districts more regional resulted in significant voter disruption. This unavoidable truth lies in the current map’s architecture, which intentionally created vertical districts that linked people from neighborhoods in different parts of town. In 2019 when that map was approved, the vertical approach was hailed as the most equitable.

The council deliberated for hours trying to find a solution, but ultimately took the best path when it prioritized voting rights by selecting a map that may look like a pitiful compromise to many, but succeeded in incorporating community feedback to unite some neighborhoods, while minimizing voter delays.

This April, when map 203 becomes the law of the land, 356 voters will shift from District 3 to District 1 and will have to wait until 2024 to participate in a local election. That outcome, while regrettable, is far superior to maps 202, 204 and 208, which if implemented would have delayed the vote for more than 3,000 people. Map 205, which was rejected by the council on a 3-2 vote, wasn’t much better with 2,358 voters left out in the cold. Frankly, it’s rather appalling that any map with that high a number of disruptions would even be considered, let alone make it to a roll call vote. To paraphrase a common saying, voting delayed is voting denied.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Corey Calaycay pointed out that these types of voter delays are a part of elections, citing the fact that all of Claremont won’t be voting in the Los Angeles County Supervisor’s race because the city shifted from Hilda Solis’ to Kathryn Barger’s district. But in the case of our election, the council had the power to choose how many people would be affected, whereas the supervisor’s district was out of local control. And council elections impact the people of Claremont more directly.

“Myself and my impacted neighbors will not be able to vote or contribute to council leadership through voting for another two years, while others will be able to contribute to council leadership two times in a four year span. How is this equitable?” asked Nona Tirre, whose home on Scripps Drive was scheduled to shift from District 4 to District 1 in six of the nine maps.

Fortunately for Tirre and her neighbors, the council left District 4 intact. That offers little solace for the neighborhood that was impacted, including people like myself, who live north of Base Line, west of Forbes Avenue, south of Armstrong Drive and east of Indian Hill Boulevard.

This area, itself a “community of interest,” will have to sit out an election that could impact our neighborhood significantly. Trumark Homes wants to build 56 single family residences on the former La Puerta school site, which borders districts 1, 2 and 3. It’s likely that the next council will decide La Puerta’s fate, but 356 people directly impacted by this development will have no say in any of those council seats.

Now that we have a new map the question remains, did the council fail to address the concentration of power in Claremont’s northern neighborhoods? One could argue the problem never really existed because no district has a majority population in that area.

Map 203 clearly doesn’t prevent the current situation, in which three sitting councilmembers live above Base Line, but it also offers no assurance that the present circumstances will continue. The map does guarantee that for the next 10 years the two members representing districts 4 and 5, or 40% of the council, will live below that demarcation line.

Councilmember Calaycay’s District 1 inherited 356 voters above Base Line, while shedding some in the Village, so one could argue that strengthens the district as northern centric. However, even with the influx of new northern constituents, only 37% of the district’s population lives above Base Line, according to National Demographic Corporation.

Councilmember Jennifer Stark’s District 3 lost those 356 voters, while picking up several neighborhoods in the Village and one off of Foothill, moving its center of gravity further south so that a mere 17% live in the wealthy north.

In District 2, currently represented by Mayor Pro Tem Ed Reece, 49% live above Base Line with much of the balance residing above Foothill, so he clearly represents north Claremont.

Two of the three “above Base Line” quorum, Stark and Reece, were elected during Claremont’s last at-large election and, assuming they run again, will face voters in their own districts for the first time later this year. Mayor Leano is also up for reelection in District 4. With so much on the line, thank goodness the majority of these voters will be headed to the polls.

One point all sides seem to agree on is a desire to return to at-large elections and put this whole districting chaos behind us. Calaycay called on his colleagues to lobby state lawmakers to amend the Citizens Voting Rights Act so that small cities like Claremont are exempt from the districting requirement.

“We are dividing the community not just figuratively but literally through this process,” Calaycay said.

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