Democracy Deserts: California Cities (2017-2021 ACS data)

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What if a city held an election, and less than half the adults who lived in that city were allowed to vote? Would you call that city a democracy? If the mayor of that city told you that they treat all city residents equally whether they can vote or not, would you believe them?

Unfortunately, in California, that’s not a hypothetical situation.

Trouble in King City

California is a state of immigrants; about 15% of adult Californians aren’t U.S. citizens. However, those 15% aren’t equally distributed across the state. In some California cities, like Loomis, virtually every adult is a U.S. citizen. In others, like King City, less than half of them are.

Would you believe that, despite King City’s democratic deficits, it’s been able to provide good services to all its residents, with a high quality police force committed to accountability at all levels?

Would you still believe that, if you knew that a third of King’s City’s sworn officers were convicted in a scheme to illegally tow and seize immigrants’ cars? (And then funneled the illegal towing business towards the acting police chief’s brother?)

What can we do about it?

California clearly has a democracy problem here. But what can Californians do about it? The U.S. immigration system is broken, and only U.S. citizens can vote, right?

Wrong. A recent California court case makes it very clear that while California’s constitution guarantees the right to vote to adult U.S. citizens who live in California, it doesn’t prevent a city from allowing non-U.S. citizens to vote too.

It’s not just the court case. The very first section of the California Constitution’s article on voting says a lot about how governments must be accountable to the people they serve, and absolutely nothing about citizenship (or the U.S.). See for yourself!

Article II, Section 1: All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their protection, security, and benefit, and they have the right to alter or reform it when the public good may require.

So far, the only California city that has allowed non-U.S. citizens to vote is San Francisco, and only to allow ensure that all parents can vote in school board elections. Oakland voted to do the same in 2022, but hasn’t yet put it into practice.

Disenfranchisement, by the numbers

The Independent California Institute took a look at voting rights data from the U.S. Census, and found that San Francisco and Oakland aren’t even where the biggest democratic deficits are. Both cities have about the same proportion of adults who can’t vote (15%) as the state overall. Still a problem, but not the biggest problem. Not by far.

The biggest percentages of adults who can’t vote aren’t just in relatively small cities like King City (56%). There are cities with over 100,000 people where huge proportions of adults can’t vote, including Salinas (37%), Sunnyvale (36%), Santa Maria (33%), Santa Clara (31%), and Santa Maria (30%). There are even California cities with over a million people, like San Jose (22%) and Los Angeles (21%), where more than a fifth of adults can’t vote. Just the cities we’ve mentioned so far account for well over a million California adults who can’t vote in the elections of the city where they live and pay taxes.

How to fix it

All of the cities in the last paragraph above are charter cities: they already have a city charter, meaning if they wanted to let all their adult residents vote, they could do so by putting a charter amendment before their voters. (Any city in California can adopt a charter without permission from the state, but it’s a much heavier lift politically.)

Prior to the court ruling, California cities could legitimately claim that they believed only U.S. citizens could legally vote in California, and if their governments weren’t electorally accountable to large proportions of their adult residents, that was just an unfortunate byproduct of the United States’ broken immigration system. No longer! Now it’s clearly a choice.

Racial disparities

U.S. citizenship requirements don’t just keep people from voting in city elections. They can also result in gross racial disparities. A bedrock principle of voting rights law is that voting systems shouldn’t advantage one racial or language group over another. But in some California cities, citizenship requirements to vote do just that.

For example, in the city of San Rafael, a charter city in Northern California, about 27% of adults are Latine. However, because many of them don’t have U.S. citizenship, San Rafael’s electorate is only about 16% Latine, reducing that population’s influence by local democracy by more than a third. Citizenship requirements to vote in local elections boost the power of the city’s majority white population; while white people make up about 62% of San Rafael’s adult population, they are 73% of the city’s electorate.

It’s not just Latine Californians who are shut out of local democracy; some of the starkest disparities impact Asian Californians. For example, Sunnyvale, another Northern California charter city, has a double democracy problem. Not only are more than a third of Sunnyvale adults unable to vote, but it has an electorate that is only 35% Asian, despite Asians comprising a near majority (49%) of Sunnyvale’s adults. Citizenship requirements also boost the voting power of white Sunnyvale residents, who make up only 31% of Sunnyvale’s adult population but 43% of its electorate.

The data is in your hands

The Independent California Institute is making our disenfranchisement and racial disparity data for California cities publicly available available through Google Sheets.

We’ve also provided add some common Filter Views so you can link directly to, say, the California cities where the most adults can’t vote, or the cities with the greatest Latine racial disparities between the adult population and the electorate.

We’re also sharing the software we used to build this data on GitHub, so that you can build datasets for counties, other states, and so on.

If you want to publish number from our data, we just have two tiny requests:

  • give us credit! (we’re the Independent California Institute)
  • don’t quote numbers with more precision than the margin of error allows

Also, totally not required, but we’d really, really appreciate anything you can donate to help support our research. Thanks!

A brief PSA about margin of error

Our dataset is based on the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey (ACS), which uses random sampling. Only talking to a willing subset of the population means ACS can ask questions that the regular census can’t (for example, “are you a U.S. Citizen?”), but it also means its numbers aren’t exact.

Just like with opinion polls, every number that comes out of the ACS has a margin of error, which is a range around the number they provide in which you’d be reasonably certain (in this case, 90% certain) to find the exact answer you’d get if you could, in theory, interview everyone in that population.

Our request is this:

Don’t quote numbers with more precision than the margin of error allows.

Specifically, we don’t want to see numbers published that are more than 10 times as precise as the margin of error.

For example, we told you above that 36% of adults in Sunnyvale can’t vote. The actual number in the data is about 36.3%, plus or minus 1.7%. In other words, we’re 90% certain that the real percentage is between 34.6% (that is 36.3 minus 1.7) and 38.0% (36.3 plus 1.7).

We’re fine with you calling this number “36%” like we did. “More than a third” (like we did above) or “About 35%” would be fine too. What we don’t want to see is “36.3%”, and certainly not “36.30%” or “36.304%”.

The same goes for absolute numbers. Our data says the number of adults in Sunnyvale that can’t vote is 44,685, plus or minus 2,278, so, we’re 90% certain the real number is between 42,707 and 46,963. “About 45,000” is a good description of this number, as would be “more than 40,000”. However, even something like “about 44,700” gives the impression of more precision than there actually is. Please don’t do that.

Thanks! Good luck!

Get  the data and make a donation to support our work. Thanks!