Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Why all the Uproar in Compton? Single Member Districts

Compton, notorious for gang violence, is now in the news for an issue that its city leaders probably never expected to face.  They are being sued for civil rights violations.  At issue is the all African American city council and other elected officials in a city with a majority Latino population, over 67% by some estimates.  The Latino advocates are calling for a change from at large elections to single member districts.  So what's the difference?

At large elections elect candidates for the entire city, no areas are separated.  In Compton the African American population votes as a block and has a much larger proportion of elegible voters, despite its smaller population, in contrast to the Latino population.  According to estimates, 24,000 residents in the Compton school district are illegal immigrants.  The civil rights complaint claims that there are about 63,000 Latinos in Compton (total population approximately 94,000.)  So even accouting for the illegal population there are still about 39,000 Latino American citizens in Compton that should be allowed representation on the city council. 

The way to remedy this situation is by setting up single member districts, or proportional voting.  Single member districts were originally developed to help minority populations participate in city government in majority white cities.  Single member districts were first used in New York City to break the Democratic Machine, but then were returned to at large voting later by the Republican majority.  San Antonio moved to single member districts in 1977 after many years of struggle by COPS (Citizens for Public Service) and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project.  The city is now divided into 10 districts that are supposed to reflect the different ethnic populations of the city.

Compton is a special case since the majority population is Latino, but more than a third of that segment are illegal aliens.  If single member districts are set up in the city they will have to be drawn carefully to reflect the legal population, which could pose other legal problems, like how do you determine where exactly to draw the lines.

Latinos are no longer confined to the Southwest, they are now living in areas that probably never thought they would hear Spanish on a daily basis, such as Lincoln, Nebraska and Minidoka, Idaho.  I expect to see more cases like this as the Latino population swells in the US. 


  1. At issue is the all African American city council and other elected officials in a city with a majority Latino population, over 67% by some estimates.

    It's interesting that the article you link to never mentions the racial make-up of the Compton City Council. If you are from the area -- or if you just have an interest in Compton -- you probably already know about the African-American representation. If you are unfamiliar with the locale and you read this story only, there's nothing to let you know about the strangeness of this case (that it is a minority governmental body that is facing a discrimination challenge from another minority). An average reader might assume this story is simply another case of white oppression.

  2. Sorry, I should have linked it to this story on Morning Edition, where I first heard about the issue.