Alternative Reforms

First Past the Post Reforms in California

Written by Brandon Martinez, Lucas Chu, Xavier Morales, and Nicholas Silva

The Question

In recent years, many California cities have reformed to First Past the Post, also called district-based elections. Proponents argue that the current system, called at-large elections or Block Voting, exclude minorities from government. They have suggested that district reforms will boost minority representation. Are they right? And are there other consequences of district-based elections?

A city that used to vote at large now votes by districts. This picture illustrates the boundaries of the new districts and the number of registered voters in each districts. Each district is approximately equal in population.
The map (above) illustrates a city that transitioned from at-large to district-based elections. Each of the five districts divides people evenly by population, but some districts have many more voters than others.

The Findings

In “District-Based Elections in California,” our team answers these questions. We analyzed seventy-two cities that switched from at-large to district-based elections in the last 20 years. Through our research, we discovered that:

  • District-based elections did not lead to more nonwhite people being elected.
  • District-based elections reduced competition in each district.
    • 2.5 fewer people competed in each district, and many elections were either uncontested or only between 2 people.
  • District-based elections made outcomes less representative.
    • Elections were 5.3% less proportional, meaning there was a bigger gap between the winner’s voting percentage and their ability to get a seat on a governing body.
  • District-based elections reduced reelection rates by 31%.
    • Still, because nonwhite representation did not increase, it does not seem that politics tangibly improved or changed in these places.

Despite these findings, we still think most cities will have to change to district-based voting if they keep Block Voting. That is because Block Voting itself has proven negative effects for minority representation. To counteract these effects, a local community would need to adopt another proposal.

Rank and Add fits the requirements of the litigation and does better than them. It ensures people receive fair and equal representation in a simple, cheap, effective way.

We hope you read the full report and learn more about our methods, our results, and its meaning for communities in California and beyond.