Sergio Farias came in last place when he ran for a seat on San Juan Capistrano’s city council in 2008. He was one of five candidates. But this past November, he beat his opponent in the city’s newly-drawn District 1 by a 17-point margin.
Farias was running as a socialist in 2008 (he’s now a Democrat) on a platform much further to the left than the campaign he ran this year. Still, his victory is at least partially attributable to San Juan Capistrano’s new by-district voting system, which was specifically designed to give Latinos greater voting power.
Until November, San Juan Capistrano elected its city councils in an "at large" system, in which all voters were eligible to cast ballots for all candidates running.
Instead of competing among all candidates for votes from all of the city’s eligible voters — 75 percent of whom are white — Farias competed in a specific geographic district race where 44 percent of eligible voters were Latino. He said the reduced territory helped him connect with voters on a personal level about issues that affect his part of town.
"There's a lot of people that we talked to that had never had a candidate or a politician ever knock on their door and ask for their vote,” Farias said.
More than 200 jurisdictions in California, mostly cities and school districts, have adopted by-district voting in recent years, according to the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College. Most of them have been pressured, and in some cases forced, to do so by Latino advocacy groups and private lawyers wielding the California Voting Rights Act, or CVRA.
The law makes at-large elections illegal if they prevent minority voters from electing representatives of their choice. Experts say it’s the most powerful voting rights legislation in the country and much more powerful than the federal Voting Rights Act.
San Juan Capistrano — along with OC cities Anaheim, Garden Grove and Buena Park — are among 21 California cities where residents voted for and elected candidates by district in November for the first time.
All four Orange County cities made the switch following demand letters or lawsuits filed under the CVRA. Doug Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute who tracks the effect of the California Voting Rights Act, said jurisdictions are increasingly adopting district elections whether or not they believe they’re violating the law.
"District elections certainly are, if not hugely popular, they're certainly acknowledged as where things are going,” he said. "In California today, if you don't approve districts, you're very likely going to get sued for a lot of money.”
Johnson has been critical of the CVRA, saying it’s too vague and has been abused by some private lawyers, who can collect legal fees from cities and school districts if they can show that their demand letter or lawsuit led the jurisdiction to adopt district elections.
But others, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, say the state voting law is helping give Latino voters a voice in local politics. MALDEF and the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project have led the push for district elections in California.
"By and large [the CVRA] has worked, and it has led to the election of new folks who we believe to be the choice of Latino voters,” said MALDEF president Thomas Saenz.
Latinos make up nearly 40 percent of California’s population but only hold around 15 percent of city council seats across the state, according to an analysis done earlier this year by the Leadership California Institute and the California Latino Caucus.
Saenz said it’s too early to tell just how successful the law has been. For one thing, the California Voting Rights Act is supposed to protect minority voters, not necessarily minority candidates.
"There are actually a number of majority Latino congressional districts that elect white congress members because those white congress members are the choice of the Latino community,” Saenz said. "So it’s not the race of the candidate, it’s the choice of the group of voters.”
Still, MALDEF's longterm goal is to groom Latino politicians at the local level as a pipeline to higher office. Latinos hold roughly 20 percent of state congressional seats and legislative seats, according to the Leadership California Institute.
Since Latinos tend to vote Democratic, California could become even bluer than it is. In traditional bastions of conservatism like Orange County, Latinos are also poised to challenge long-held Republican seats.
OC city councils have more Latinos after district elections
To comply with the CVRA, districts must be drawn in such a way that minority voters — in most cases Latinos — have a viable chance of electing a candidate of their choice. San Juan Capistrano’s District 1, which Sergio Farias won, has the town’s largest concentration of eligible Latino voters. Of the city’s five newly drawn districts, his was, in theory, the most likely to elect a Latino to city council.
Elsewhere in Orange County, Kim Nguyen — the daughter of a Vietnamese refugee and a Mexican immigrant — won a seat in Garden Grove’s largely Latino District 6, becoming the only Latina on that city council.
In Anaheim, Jose Moreno won a narrow victory in Anaheim’s District 3, also becoming the only Latino on city council.
In Buena Park, no Latinos were elected. But that wasn’t unexpected because elections won’t be held in either of the new districts with the most eligible Latino voters until 2018.
Despite the gains, most Latino candidates in the four cities were unsuccessful. Of at least 13 Latino candidates running, just three won seats. But in some cases, those Latinos were running against each other in the same district. In others, like Buena Park, the number of eligible Latino voters in contested districts was relatively small.
Moreno, who will take his oath of office next week, was a plaintiff in the California Voting Rights Act case that forced Anaheim to adopt district elections. Though he’s Latino, he sees the switch to voting by district as a way to lessen the influence of big money on local politics. It’s generally cheaper to run an election at the district level because a candidate has to reach fewer voters.
“It is about the democratization of Anaheim,” Moreno said. "So that all neighborhoods now, if they feel so inclined, do have a real shot at getting a seat on the city council to represent their voice.”
In San Juan Capistrano, Farias said he doesn't see his victory so much as one for the Latino community but rather for his side of town.
“I don't want to be just a voice for the Latino community,” he said. “I am very proud of my ethnicity, I celebrate it […] but we never emphasized my ethnicity to the voters.”
Even more Orange County cities will be holding by-district elections in the future. Placentia, Costa Mesa and Fullerton — along with six other cities statewide — voted in November to switch to by-district elections, and Santa Ana discussed a possible switch at its city council meeting this week.
Plus, a law takes effect Jan. 1 that allows cities to adopt by-district elections without putting it on the ballot.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Jose Moreno won the race for Anaheim's District 1. He actually won the race for District 3. We regret the error.