The birthplace of modern conservatism and the "happiest place on Earth", Orange County, California may be known for its sunshine, orange groves, and wealth. But it also has deep political roots. Once home to a thriving chapter of the deeply conspiratorial John Birch Society, a strong base of support for Barry Goldwater, birthplace of Richard Nixon, and ground zero for the conservative movement that catapulted Ronald Reagan to the Presidency, Orange County has long been a bastion of conservatism and evangelical Christianity. Yet, Orange County is changing. The OC is now one of the largest U.S. counties with a majority-minority population, and consequently still a site of lingering KKK activities.
Once dominated by whites, today Orange County is majority-minority. Thirty-four percent of the population is Latino and 19 percent Asian American. Fully one-third of the residents are foreign-born immigrants. With demographic change come political consequences. A new report from the UCLA Labor Center & UCI Labor Project describes Orange County as being at the cusp of change, with a 26 percent decrease in voters who identify as Republican. Still, the county lacks electoral institutions that are responding to the needs of its newest residents. But this election could change the political landscape for decades.
On Anaheim's ballot next Tuesday is an initiative to move the city from at-large to district elections. The distinction is technical but the impact can be drastic. In at-large elections, candidates run for citywide elections and are elected by every voter in the city. The candidates with the greatest name recognition and the most resources generally win those seats. In Southern California, these candidates are generally wealthy and white. By contrast, district elections offer the opportunity for voters within different electoral districts to elect their own representatives. These representatives generally live in that district and are familiar with the concerns of their neighborhoods. Given the durability of segregation, district elections tend to offer more opportunities to low-income communities and communities of color to elect their ideal candidate. Despite the drastic demographic change, Anaheim remains the largest city in California to have at-large elections.
These elections suppress motivation among first-time and low propensity voters who are less likely to be mobilized by powerful, well-resourced candidates. In Southern California, these candidates can win elections with support from conservative White voters alone. Targeted mobilization of first-time and low propensity voters often occurs by community organizations and local canvassers, and can be more effective when a local candidate is on the ballot. In 2013, for example, when Detroit moved to district elections, sustained efforts by Raquel Castaneda-Lopez to engage voters, including those communities historically ignored in District 6, led to her being elected. She became not just the first Latina on the Detroit City Council but the first resident of that district to serve on the council. That election created the opportunity for new voices, including minorities, to have representation for the first time.
In Anaheim, after a protracted lawsuit, Measures M and L are poised to change the city's status quo. Measure M would shift the Anaheim City Council from a four-member to a six-member council. Measure L would scrap the "at-large" representation in favor of more localized district elections in which city council members must reside in their district and be elected by only their district's voters.
Both measures can help change the composition of the Anaheim City Council -- to reflect the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the city. More broadly, the movement from at-large to district elections, will likely influence activists and lawyers in other cities, notably Fullerton, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, Westminster to push for similar political change.
Only 20 years ago, California passed Proposition 187, limiting the state's undocumented residents from accessing state services. Today, it is one of the most progressive states for immigrant and minority representation and integration. That journey began with demographic change, but political change was not achieved without pushback, backlash, and political fights. Orange County too can emerge from this election more inclusive and representative. Like many counties in the in the United States, Anaheim's outdated electoral structures do not live up to its diverse population. Measures M and L are examples of the efforts needed to ensure that America lives up to its ideals of democracy and political equality.