Viewpoint: the disenfranchisement of Claremont voters

Recently there has been an intense focus on the protection of the right to vote in federal, state and local elections. While there are some profound disagreements over how to best secure this right, no reasonable person disputes the fundamental proposition that every eligible citizen should be allowed to vote.

For over a century, all eligible Claremont residents could vote in every single contested city council election — which is to say, we all had a voice in the selection of all of the council members who were empowered to make decisions that affect our lives.

Three years ago, the city council decided to take away 80% of our right to vote in council elections. In place of the “at-large” system of voting (which had been in place since the city’s founding in 1907), the council imposed a “by-district” system which allows Claremont residents to vote for only one of the five seats on the council.

We do not get to vote in the elections for any of the other four seats, even though those four members collectively possess the authority to pass laws and spend our tax money. History has proven that it is very dangerous to be governed by officials who are not accountable to the citizens they hold power over.

The by-district system makes no sense at all for a small city like Claremont, where residents have a common interest in virtually every council decision. To the contrary, it is a divisive and destructive influence on the civic culture of a small city like Claremont.

Instead of having to appeal to residents in all parts of the city, candidates can selectively cultivate the support of voters within their districts. Similarly, when they are serving on the council, members have an incentive to place the interests of their own districts over those of the city as a whole.

By-district voting is also an invitation to political cronyism and corruption. Incumbent council members have broad discretion to draw district boundaries which enhance their chances for reelection. At the very least, they can ensure that they will never have to run against each other.

The vast majority of cities in Los Angeles County use the at-large system. The few which have recently switched to by-district voting did so after receiving a formal demand to comply with the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA) – a state law which is intended to protect the voting power of racial minorities.

Unlike all of the cities which were accused of CVRA violations – based explicitly on their persistent failure to elect minority candidates to their city councils – Claremont has a long and consistent history of electing Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-Pacific Islander candidates to the council in greater proportion than their share of the city’s population.

Despite our unparalleled record of electing racial minorities, Claremont is the only city in the entire state which switched to by-district elections without having received a formal CVRA complaint. Fortunately, the council can correct this ill-conceived decision and restore the at-large system in time for the November 2022 council elections.

At various times during the debate on this issue three years ago, and more recently as the council has commenced the effort to redraw the district boundaries, members of the council and the public have strongly expressed their desire to reinstate at-large voting. By contrast, no one has advanced a credible argument why we should continue to use a by-district system which disenfranchises every Claremont voter in council elections, and which sows the seeds of civic discord.

I assume that the council acted with the best of intentions three years ago, and did not adopt by-district voting to protect their personal interests; but it should now be clear to them and everyone else that by-district voting has got to go. I hope and expect that the council will have the integrity to immediately restore our full voting rights.

James Belna

1 Comment

  1. Joseph Lyons

    Although begrudgingly, given the unkind and angry words Mr. Belna directed at the Council on which I serve, I am compelled to agree with his almost aspersion-free, well articulated, factually accurate, and direct request that our sitting Council reverse their predecessors’ decision to go from at-large to by-district elections for our CITY Council.

    However, and despite the fact that it was a decision made by a Council under duress, and with nothing but the best interests of our Community at heart, I caution Mr. Belna against making it a matter of integrity, should this Council take a cautious approach to returning to at large elections of our CITY Council.

    That said, I also think that the Council should direct our City Attorney to IMMEDIATELY provide the Council and the Community, with the various options to restore at-large elections, including a simple vote to reverse the prior Council’s decision, AND, in the IMMEDIATE interim, that Mr. Belna join me and other residents undertake a by-district, signature collection drive that could be designed to register our Community’s opinions on at-large versus by-district elections, as well as if there exists any perception of the kinds of California Voting Rights Act violations that would, and should, if true, require redress that by-district elections would mitigate.

    Doing both simultaneously and with urgency, would provide our Council with both the legal and public opinion necessary to make the decision that is in the best interests of Claremont under the current circumstances, and if done expeditiously, perhaps we can all vote in November.

    Joseph Lyons

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