Claremont’s city council voted Tuesday to move to a by-district system of elections, an action that splits the 5Cs into three separate voting districts.
Before the 3-2 vote, the city council held at-large elections to elect its five members. Under the new system, each city council member will be elected by and represent one district.
After fielding map submissions from Claremont residents to divide the city into five voting districts for the 2020 election, the city shared 11 potential maps in late January. Three of the maps divided the 5Cs in two, while eight divided them into three or more districts.
Under the chosen map, Map 124a, Pitzer College will be part of district two, and Claremont McKenna College, Scripps College and Harvey Mudd College will be members of district three. Pomona College is in district five, whose city council representative will be up for re-election in 2020.
The decision to divide the colleges into three prevents “super voters,” according to city consultant Doug Johnson of the National Demographic Corporation. The maps with all of the colleges in one district had a smaller voting population than the other districts, meaning that each individual voter in the colleges’ district would have had a greater say in who represented them on the council.
The district map will be in place only for the 2020 election, when the town will redistrict based off of 2020 census data.
CMC government professor Zachary Courser CM ’99, who has mounted two unsuccessful city council bids, explained that the city’s district decision was prompted by two laws related to minority voting rights.
The first, the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1960, curbs vote dilution of minority groups, through barring the denial of the right to vote due to several factors and the monitoring of polling places by federal officials, according to the Department of Justice.
The second, the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, lowered the level of proof required for minority groups in California to allege that their votes were being diluted in “at-large” elections, Courser said.
Councilmember Jennifer Stark PZ ’98 said the decision stemmed from a “plausible feeling that a demand letter was going to come” from the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
City attorney Joseph Larsen said during a special meeting last week that the city worried it was in violation of these laws because of “oral communication” in September from the group. SVREP told the city it could be subject to $30,000 in legal fees if the group sent a formal demand letter alleging that the city was unfair to its minority voters because of its at-large process. Under the district model, minority populations are evenly balanced with other populations, ensuring that each vote counts equally.
“When a demand letter is served, it makes the city liable for paying for the person who sent that letter’s court costs,” Stark said. “It was determined it was more fiscally responsible to preemptively move towards districts.”
The 5Cs were a “hot topic of discussion” in the proceedings about districting, Johnson said.
Johnson noted throughout the process that the 5Cs represent a high population but a small number of actual voters, hence the decision to split the schools into three districts. Several residents brought up the colleges in their comments to the city council during public hearing.
“I think we should, as best we can, include as many young people that want to be involved in local government as possible,” Stark said. “However, a great many college students are here for a short time and are not going to make Claremont their home.”
Democrats of the Claremont Colleges president Sam Horowitz PZ ’20 called the college voter representation in Claremont “small but underestimated” during the public hearing.
Horowitz said if the schools were divided among different districts, there might be confusion among students over which polling place they went to based on their campus address, which could potentially be a “barrier for getting people out to vote.”
Although the decision wasn’t his preferred choice, he was glad the 5Cs weren’t split into four or five districts.
“I believe that having district-based elections in general will improve student turnout, but the fact that the 5Cs are now split into three different districts will undoubtedly cause confusion among student voters,” he wrote in an email to TSL. “Unfortunately, this may lead to students being turned away to vote, becoming discouraged and subsequently not voting at all.”
Ultimately, however, Stark doesn’t think this decision will affect students all that much.
“Just as much as any City Council representative affects you now, I think to the same effect they would affect you in the future,” he wrote.
Other students also attended the Tuesday meeting, but not to represent student voters. College Community Action Network representatives Shayok Chakraborty PO ’19, Emily Lavine SC ’19 and Devon Baker PO ’22 advocated for increased representation for the southern part of Claremont in their remarks.
“We were not too concerned about a student district because we don’t believe that there are a lot of student issues that pertain to the [city],” Chakraborty said in an interview with TSL.
“Students [at] the Claremont Colleges tend to be higher income and also don’t have much of a personal stake in the community,” Baker added. “So to take that away from people who are more low-income in south Claremont specifically … it’s a lot more important that they are advocated for and get to advocate for themselves.”
Lavine said south Claremont, historically known as the region in Claremont south of the Metrolink train tracks, has historically been under-represented on the city council. Only two south Claremont representatives have been elected to the council in the past 45 years, a fact repeated by numerous south Claremont residents throughout the meeting.
“When you ask them what the top issue that [they] have in local politics, they say, ‘We feel ignored,’” she said.
Chakraborty thinks the decision, which created one district for south Claremont, will be beneficial for those residents.
“From the perspective of representation for those whose voices are least heard and whose concerns are most serious, I think this has ended up well,” he wrote in an email to TSL.
Brendan Schultz PZ ’19, one of the colleges’ few Claremont voters, defended what he said was the positive impact of the student voice on Claremont politics, such as in a recent debate over a resolution supporting undocumented immigrants in Claremont.
“We bring a view that is typically a lot younger than the standard Claremont voter and the student body at the colleges is more diverse than the Claremont community at large,” he said.