More on Districts
Recently, I told you that I changed my mind from opposing to supporting a five-member City Council district system with two at-large members.
I’ve appreciated the discussion that this has generated because we as a City haven’t seriously considered whether or not districts would be good for Asheville. Rather, we seem to have understandably reacted to the General Assembly’s actions. Since my announcement, many people have told me, “I’m not necessarily opposed to districts, but I don’t want Raleigh telling Asheville what to do.” That was my initial response too, but it avoids the hard questions we should be asking. In this newsletter, I’ll address three questions that I’ve been asked about my views and I’ll invite you to attend a special City Council workshop on July 2nd at 5pm at the Civic Center where we will discuss Council’s legal options. (Note: if you would like to read this as a downloadable PDF document, click here.).
Summary of My Position
So that you don’t have to read my long explanation for my position (you can read it here if you’d like), let me summarize it here:
Asheville’s at-large voting system neglects the needs of neighborhoods. District systems force Council members to address problems happening in their respective neighborhoods. Under a district system, a Council member can’t hide because residents know specifically who first to call and because everyone understands that it is that Council person’s responsibility to help them. So if residents want a community center in South Asheville, they will first contact me. If a 12 year old boy is shot and killed in Lee Walker Heights, they will first call Keith Young or Brian Haynes. If they routinely find syringes in their West Asheville yards, they will first call Julie Mayfield. If they have opinions on what to do with Charlotte Street, they will first call Gwen Wisler. If they have noise problems in Kenilworth, they will first call Sheneika Smith. Responsibilities and accountability are clear with districts.
Under a district system, Council members must address the problems happening in their neighborhoods or they will be voted out. That’s not true in an at-large system where groups with narrow interests can work together and win if their members vote as a bloc (which happens here in Asheville). Additionally, under an at-large system, each Council Member’s “district” is 90,000 people – about the same population as Brian Turner’s state house district. Good constituent service requires a lot more than just answering an email – it often requires multiple meetings in person or on the phone and follow-up. Imagine that your part-time job was being primarily responsible for serving 90,000 people and you basically needed to do it by yourself. It’s no wonder neighborhood needs aren’t being met.
Finally, the data shows that the district map set to go into effect in 2020 is neither a political nor a racial gerrymander. Those who continue to claim that it is haven’t provided any evidence other than their own opinions. In fact, historically, voting rights groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund have sued cities with at-large council elections in favor of district elections.
Here are my answers to some of the questions that I’ve been asked:
Aren’t you supporting districts because you think you have a better chance of being reelected in a South Asheville district than at-large?
No, I make my decisions based on what I think is in the long-term best interests of this city, not what might be in my narrow self-interest.
It’s true that in the last election I did very well in South Asheville. It’s also true that I did very well across the city. Politically speaking, deciding to very publicly change my mind on this issue is a stupid thing to do. (A person whose opinion I very much respect charitably described my decision as being “politically tone deaf”). If my goal were political self-preservation, the savvy thing to do would have been to lay low, support fighting the districts and then shrug my shoulders if the state reimposes them and say there’s nothing I could have done.
This wasn’t a political move. When I ran for Council, my t-shirts read “Empowering Our Neighborhoods” on the back and my stated goal was to ensure that every resident be able to go to sleep each night feeling safe, fed, healthy and valued. That starts with having healthy neighborhoods across the city. My time on Council has convinced me that the at-large system neglects the needs of neighborhoods and that a move to districts will force us to better address the day-to-day problems our residents face. Also, my seat is not up until 2022. I’m willing to try the district system and if we hate it, we can change it back to at-large prior to the 2022 election.
Finally, while I do not mind being asked this question, I think that it’s only fair to also ask the same question to supporters of the status quo. Two Council members up for reelection as well as the fourth-place finisher in the last election all live in District 2 which means that they would need to run against each other under the 2020 district map. If you ask the question of me, you should also ask the question of them.
Shouldn’t we fight districts on principle because the state imposed them on us?
Many people in Asheville aren’t necessarily opposed to districts, but they didn’t want Raleigh dictating this decision to Asheville. I can understand this position, because that’s partly why I cast my vote in the 2017 referendum against districts. But if we stop there, we don’t get to the more important question of whether the district map set to go into effect in 2020 is a good thing or a bad thing for Asheville.
Right now, many neighborhoods and people in Asheville are struggling. We hear that every week on Council. Shouldn’t the test for our decision be whether an at-large or district system is better for actually addressing these problems, rather than whether it sends a message to the legislature? Remember that the district map set to go into effect in 2020 (not the one voters rejected) was unanimously approved in the State Senate. Senate Democrats would never have supported it if the system were a political or racial gerrymander. If we change the system back to at-large, the legislature can change it back. I don’t see the benefit to Asheville in going around in circles with the legislature on this matter.
For those of you who prefer districts but want to fight the legislature on principle, do you really think that an at-large elected City Council would district themselves in the future? I don’t. History has shown that municipalities change their voting systems only when they are forced to.
Many cities, especially in the South, moved from at-large voting systems to districts as a result of outside pressure such as litigation brought by civil rights groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund or from pressure by the Department of Justice because of concerns over impacts on minority communities (see South Abandoning At-Large Voting. New York Times. May 30, 1984. Online at https://nyti.ms/29x5Nsb). Of all the large cities in North Carolina, only Asheville and Wilmington do not have a district system for electing city council members – two cities that don’t exactly have the best history of race relations. Just four years ago, Asheville’s City Council was all white. That can happen again, but it would be less likely to occur under the 2020 district map since District 2 has nearly double the percentage of African American registered voters than the city at-large.
Of at-large voting generally, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) wrote, “Fewer and fewer districts still practice at-large voting. That is because courts and decision-makers long have recognized that discriminatory methods of election, like at-large voting, enhance the discrimination that communities of color experience because of socioeconomic and other disparities in life opportunities between Black and white communities. LDF has long worked to eradicate discriminatory at-large methods of election that dilute the voting strength of communities of color.” (https://www.naacpldf.org/wp-content/uploads/At-Large-Voting-Frequently-Asked-Questions-1.pdf). It’s interesting that the LDF’s position on at-large voting is diametrically opposed to those who claim that the 2020 district system is a racial gerrymander.
Voters rejected the 2017 referendum on districts by a 75% to 25% margin. Aren’t you disregarding the will of the electorate by supporting the 2020 district map?
First, the 2020 district system is different from the 2017 district system that voters, including me, rejected. The 2017 district system that voters rejected had six districts (with downtown being split in two) and only the mayor was elected at large. There, voters could only vote for two Council members. The 2020 district system has five districts that are drawn logically (though as I said previously, I don’t think that precinct 8.3 should be split in half) and two at-large seats (an at-large Council member and the mayor). Here, voters can vote for three Council members. This change made a difference for me.
Second, and more importantly, while it may be politically risky, my responsibility as an elected official is to do what I think is in the best interests of Asheville in the long-term. A district system will better take care of the day-to-day needs of neighborhoods and residents and will better address the issues that these same voters say they care about. I’m not the only one who sees it that way. In an article called “The Bias of At-Large Elections: How it Works,” the non-partisan voting rights group Nonprofit Vote published the following:
“At-Large voting systems may be appropriate for multi-winner elections in small jurisdictions where everyone knows the candidates and one segment of the population can’t be routinely outvoted. This is not true in larger jurisdictions that are more susceptible to the discriminatory effects of bloc voting—add to this the problems for candidates facing the high costs of running citywide and for voters of deciding among a long list of candidates on the ballot, most of whom they don’t know or have never met. With higher stakes for policy outcomes and the need to represent and engage all neighborhoods, At-Large voting results in under representation for the majority of neighborhoods.
In spite of the bans, the disuse, and lawsuits, At-Large systems remain in many local jurisdictions. Incumbents elected At-Large are rarely the ones to call for a more democratic system. The challenge is most often led by the affected voters themselves with the help of civic groups, legal partners, or government willing to enforce equal opportunity voting rights found in the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution itself. In the process, the pillars of democratic participation are uplifted and reinforced, and a more effective system for long-term voter engagement emerges.” (https://www.nonprofitvote.org/bias-large-elections-works/)
July 2nd Meeting
Because Council needs to make a decision on the district issue, we are holding a special workshop on July 2nd at 5pm at the Civic Center where we will discuss Council’s legal options and will take public comment. The workshop will be live-streamed like our regular Council meetings. If you care about this issue, I encourage you to either come in person or to watch.