EPISODE 39 – TO JOIN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD COUNCIL, OR NOT

In our 39th episode, we chat with Brett Shears, the founder of Vote Allies, an advocacy organization working to grant voting rights to historically disenfranchised communities, and a recent staffer for the successful Prop 17 campaign during this year’s elections. Brett and I have an extensive conversation on L.A.’s Neighborhood Council (NC) system, which is holding its own elections through early 2021. We touch on the origins of the NCs in the pre 2000s era, their strengths and weaknesses given the wealth gap between different communities in Los Angeles, and how a lack of support for NCs from L.A. City Hall continually strains their potential to keep the actual L.A. City Council “in check,” which is what they’re supposed to do! For listeners interested in more insights regarding L.A.’s neighborhood council system, Brett is happy to chat with you. Find him on Twitter at: @brettshears

J.T.

Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California (2010)

The first time we analyzed an election in California was in 2017, when we reviewed data from a Special Election in Los Angeles. Data for that election showed a yawning gap between the voting rates for white and non-white voters; at the close of the special election, in a city where less than 50% of the population identified as white, over 64% of mail-in ballots turned in belonged to white voters. As we noted in that article:

“Although non-white registered voters make for a combined total of 52% of votes eligible to be cast in L.A., post-election day, only 36% of ballots turned in belonged to non-white voters.”

As it turns out, the rate of return for that Special Election in L.A. was not an anomaly, or some new and strange phenomenon, but actually consistent with the history of voting in ‘liberal’ California as a whole.

In Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California, Daniel HoSang takes an analysis of California’s voting patterns one step further, exploring the way the predominantly white electorate of the state has voted negatively or against a handful of ballot issues dealing closely with racial or progressive issues in the state during a sixty year period from just after 1945 to the early 2000s.

And why should we care about a handful of ‘old’ voting issues in California? HoSang explains that ballot measures are especially useful for thinking about the state’s role in the inequalities found between its housing, public schools, healthcare, employment and other areas ‘separating’ people of color from wealthier whites due to the way that voting publicizes a particular type of conversation on these issues:

“Ballot measures…especially those that receive widespread public attention, create public spectacles where competing political interests necessarily seek to shape public consciousness and meaning.”

Put another way: materials like campaign rhetoric, opinion articles, television commercials and other instruments which are used to support the passage of certain ballot issues, or used to defeat them, show that campaign or policy battles don’t ‘just express’ the will of an electorate, but even go as far as to create and develop certain ideals about what the state of California is, who California is, and who it belongs to.

“Because the instruments of direct democracy by definition are intended to advance the will of “the people,”…organized groups and interests must always make their claim in populist rather than partisan terms, thereby defining the very meaning of the common good.”

In other words, for HoSang, as anyone familiar with the 2016 Presidential Election should be able to recall, voting issues have a very particular–at times even “nasty”–way of telling voters about “who we are,” what our values are–or what they should be–and how we should act on such values with our votes.

HoSang further contends that the “sensibilities” or logic which the voting issues of Racial Propositions make their appeals to are voters’ “political whiteness.” The phrase “political whiteness” has layered meanings, but essentially, throughout his book it means a degree of privilege and status for white voters that’s not only maintained but also expounded on by voting issues.

From the outset, HoSang claims that “whiteness” in the United States isn’t simply a “fixed” identity, where if you’re white, you view yourself as such in a “static” or “unchanging” way; instead, he argues, “whiteness” is highly impressionable, or capable of transforming due to external factors like advertising, propagandizing, and finally, voting.

As HoSang takes readers through the first dozen or so pages of Racial Propositions, then, rather than simply restating the term, the author arrests and interrogates scores of materials left by different voting issues in California. The campaigns for Fair Employment, Fair Housing, or the effort to Desegregate Public Schools in California are just a few of the voting issues he discusses, in which he exposes the logic of “political whiteness” at play in efforts by organizations like the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Realtors Association (CREA), the Parents Associations and other groups that come together to defeat policies aimed at “leveling the playing field” between white and non-white people in the Golden State.

That’s right. Did you know that in 1946, voters in California decided against protections for workers facing discrimination in hiring? Or, did you know that in 1964, voters in California decided against protections for non-white residents looking for a home in the state? Did you know that in 1979, California voters decided against racial integration at our schools when they canceled the state’s busing program?

In Los Angeles alone, a mass of white parents voted by a margin of 73% to put an end to school busing in the city, which was only instituted in 1977 and thus not even off the ground yet.

The vote against desegregating schools was passed through an ordinance known as Proposition 1, and put an end to “mandatory” busing in 1980 (which, of course, was just a few years before my parents would arrive from Latin-America alongside many other Central-American and Asian people. Can anyone say, awkward?).

On the issue of school integration, HoSang points out that it wasn’t easy placing an end to a program whose stated goal was the integration of the races in the state’s public classrooms in accordance with Brown vs Board of Education; the formula to defeat integration required a sophisticated deployment of a language of “racial innocence,” which sought to ‘pass the buck’ or responsibility for “fixing” racism onto the desks of the state and away from the homes of ‘innocent’ [white] parents:

“[Supporters of Proposition 1] held that because white parents and students did not intentionally create the second-class schools to which most racial minorities were consigned nor explicitly support segregated schools as a matter of principle, they could not be compelled to participate in the schools’ improvement.”

In other words, in the same way that today the Trump administration likes to argue that the refugee crisis in Central-America should be some other state’s–perhaps Mexico’s–problem, opponents of the school-busing program in late seventies California argued that mixing their white children with Black and Brown kids was unfairly burdening them with a job that was supposed to be the state or federal government’s to do. That is, whenever the state or federal government would get to it. Perhaps never, even, but the point being the same: it was not the parents’ responsibility to account for or address inequality at public schools. They were “the innocent ones.”

But the gift of Racial Propositions is that no matter what the reader may make of the author’s argument on political whiteness, the book is an exhilarating page-turner for anyone interested in a political history of “The Golden State.” This is due in no small part to HoSang’s unsparingly sharp, saber-like writing skills. For his part, the author recognizes none other than James Baldwin as a key influence on his analytical framework:

“Whiteness was for Baldwin “absolutely, a moral choice,” an identity derived from and constructed through a set of political convictions. It was by inhabiting a particular political subjectivity—one that rested upon a series of destructive assumptions—that one became white. To embrace the myth of whiteness, he argued, was to ‘believe, as no child believes, in the dream of safety’; that one could insist on an inalienable and permanent protection from vulnerability.”

By the closing pages of Racial Propositions, HoSang’s analysis also makes clear why our political discussions today need to abate a conception of ‘liberal’ California which still dominates the vox populi leading up to 2020: that because California is already a “minority majority” state, it offers a glimpse into the “progressive” future of America, since the U.S.’s “browning” is asumed to lead towards ‘liberalizing’ it.

HoSang notes that if such “majority minority” or “browning” scenarios are the last frontiers for the hope of liberalism, which became the case in California nearly two decades ago, than they better take a closer look at the numbers:

“…in 2000, as California became the first large “majority minority” state in the nation, white voters still constituted 72 percent of the electorate.”

And so, as one blogger put it to his fellow readers and historians following another election where that same “majority minority” was hardly seen during election day:

“The current disparities throughout California between white voter rates and those of people of color when considering the larger voter eligibility pool of the latter is not just unfortunate, it’s something of a public safety concern.”

So let’s get on it, Los Angeles. Find and read Daniel HoSang’s book, which has full approval from The L.A. Storyteller.

J.T.

California Primary Elections: June 2018 Recap

According to the Washington Post, just over 6.9 million people in California cast a vote for the state’s June 2018 Primaries–the largest recorded in the state’s history for a primary election–out of a total of over 19 million registered voters, to make for a 36% ‘return’ rate.

However, when considering the total number of all potential voters in the State’s Registrar, listed by Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s records as being at 25 million eligible voters, the turnout rate becomes 27%, or just over a fourth of the possible turnout.

To make things more interesting, when considering the total population of California, the most recent census records show that the Golden State is comprised of over 39.5 million people. To be sure, the census also counts people who are imprisoned, undocumented immigrants, and other non-voting citizens such as youth under eighteen years old. Nevertheless, if the total population is considered, it makes the Primary’s ‘turnout’ rate even smaller, at 17% of all the citizenry in the state, or less than a fifth of the ‘democratic’ or participating possibilities.

In contest for June 2018’s primary elections was the state’s Governorship, a seat for one U.S. Senator’s position, various seats for the U.S. House of Representatives, local courtroom positions, measures or ordinances varying from county to county, and more, like the recall of Judge Aaron Persky in Santa Clara County, for one.

Now, a quick glance at which groups comprise the California population:

From the U.S. Census Bureau’s ‘Quick Facts’ online:

At 15.4 million, Latinos account for 39% of California’s population.

At 14.6 million, Whites hold 38.8% of California’s population.

At 5.9 million, Asians maintain 15% of California’s population.

And at 2.5 million, Blacks constitute 6.5% of California’s population.

At 633,000, Native Americans compose 1.6% of California’s population. And at 198,000, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders form 0.5% of California’s population.

My favorite data for this election, however, is Political Data, Inc’s Absentee Vote Tracker (AVT), which tracked the early return of ballots on both the day before the Primary election as well as the day of, tracking up to 2.8 million returns of the 6.9 returns overall.

We’ll take a look at some of the numbers, particularly the following about which groups were mailed a ballot for the primaries, and which groups actually submitted those ballots.

According to the AVT, the day before and the day of the election, the percentage of ballots held by the states voter’s along ethnic lines were:

Latinos: 2.2 million (25% of the total)
Asians: 1.05 million (12% of the total)
Blacks: 312 thousand (4% of the total)
Whites: 5.2 million (59% of the total)

What the numbers suggest is reason for pause: similarly to L.A. County’s Special and Municipal Elections, voting at the State level is still the matter of a huge disparity between the White and Non-White populations who make up California.

Remember our Census data: at 15.4 million of the overall population in California, Latinos outnumber Whites, even if by only less than a percentage point. When it comes to ballots held between Latinos and Whites before election day, however, there are more than two White voters for every Latino voter, and nearly five times as many White voters for every Asian voter. This is what inequality in the democracy of the Golden State looks like.

On the day of the Primary election, the numbers are more startling.

Latino returns: 367,000 (13% of the total)
Asian returns: 295,000 (11% of the total)
Black returns: 75,000 (3% of the total)
White returns: 2.04 million (76% of the total)

Of course, one should also note that these numbers are from just the day before as well as the day of the vote, which obviously makes them incomplete. But in midterm elections like these, which are usually less popular and thus more predictable, the probability that early returns are indicators of a normal distribution is usually higher than not. In other words, after counting the total overall, the 76% rate of Whites who voted in this last election is probably off by only a few percentage points in one direction or the other.

The implications are that the current disparities throughout California between white voter rates and those of people of color when considering the larger voter eligibility pool of the latter is not just unfortunate, it’s something of a public safety concern. if recent trends in U.S. politics show us anything, it’s that very few groups feel adequately represented by the country’s current institutional makeup. Just as relevant: although the state and its officials certainly like to claim they welcome immigration and the diversity of the land, when it comes to the distribution of power between its various groups, California’s white population is as much in control of the state as whites are in places like Tennessee or Arkansas, where they voted overwhelmingly for the current administration.

It was in 2014 that the PEW Research center identified Latinos as the largest ethnic group in California, which is considered a preview for the overall direction of the U.S.’s ‘majority-minority‘ poised to arrive in the next twenty-five years or so. But if the current trends in California’s voting disparity between whites and non-whites here continues, one can only reasonably calculate for an even more radical disparity at the national level in terms of power and policy between the groups than what we’re seeing today.

J.T.

i voted sticker spool on white surface

Voting in Los Angeles: Municipal and Special Elections 2017

Out of nearly 5.2 Million registered voters in L.A. County for the 2017 year, less than 900,000 of them, or 17% cast ballots for the Municipal and Special Elections on Tuesday, March 07, 2017. In the election postmortem, when the L.A. County Voting Registrar, Dean Logan, was asked by a KPCC reporter one reason why so few registered voters turned out, Logan said:

“I do think we have to make the voting process more adaptive and responsive to the way people live their lives day to day. Our current model of voting is– arguably –outdated.”

While it’s true that the current model of voting is “outdated,” it’s also true that we cannot have an honest conversation on voting without talking about racial inequality’s impact on turnout. Yet conspicuously absent from the KPCC discussion is any mention of the demographics of Los Angeles and how disaffected non-white communities in L.A. turn out to vote at much lower rates than white communities.

Logan’s discussion of “the voters” in purely abstract terms is therefore not helpful. We have information at our fingertips, and it’s meant to be used; below, for example, is a telling info-graphic on registered voters and mail-in-voters identified by race or ethnic group, as well as in terms of age groups, leading up to the election. The information is provided by Tableau Public, an open-source data website, which counted 454,971 returned ballots out of 2.2 million ballots held by registered voters across Los Angeles by election day on March 07, 2017.

L.A. County Voter Registration, according to Tableau Public

While the histogram does not account for people who identify as mixed, Native American, or Pacific Islander such as the 2013 Census does, it still proves extremely helpful in identifying “the voters.” Based on the data, we can see that in terms of registered voters in L.A., whites outnumber their non-white counterparts by considerable margins at 47%, or nearly half of all registrations. Asian-Americans took up 10.5% of voter registrations, while Blacks accounted for 8.4%. Meanwhile, Latinos accounted for 33.6% of voter registrations. Together, the combined population of Asian, Latino, and Black registered voters accounted for 52% of all voter registration before election day.

We can also see that in terms of age, the age group with the lowest voter registration rate is the 18 – 24 year olds in Los Angeles. At the same time, 35 – 44 year olds, 45 – 54 year olds, and 55 – 64 year olds have more or less similar registration rates at 16.6%, 16.4%, and 16.3% respectively.

The group with the second highest registration rate before the election was the 65+ category at 20.4%; while the group with the highest number of registrations was the 25 – 34 year olds in Los Angeles, at 20.7%.

Assuming that each of these groups receive ballots by mail not long after they register–which is standard procedure– the potential for at least half of registrations to turn into 2.6 million votes cast is definitely there. But when we take a look at data for the number of returned ballots, we start to see catastrophic level “drop-off” or “disappearance” rates across racial and age lines, for starters.

L.A. County Voter Turnout, according to Tableau Public

First, let’s consider the age demographics for returned ballots from voters by election day. Based on the data, we can see that the number of returned ballots from 18 – 24 year olds is exceptionally low at 3.4%, while the number of returned ballots from 25 – 34, 35 – 44, and 45 – 54 year olds is more or less the same across the board at 10%, 10.4%, and 12.9%, respectively. A significantly higher number of returned ballots comes from 55 – 64 year olds at 19.3% of returned ballots counted.

But by far, the highest number of returned ballots, a whopping 44%, come from voters 65+ and older.

Inversely, the age group with the greatest drop-off or “disappearance” after registration was the 25 – 34 year old category, with less than half of folks registered in this age range returning ballots by election day. Now, let’s consider the racial differences for returned ballots.

When it comes to the racial makeup of ballots returned after election day, white voters made up for a super-majority of all returned ballots at 64.1%. The Asian, Latino, and Black populations, on the other hand, made up for a combined total of less than 36% of returns.

Remember that combined non-white registration of 52%? It falls apart by the time of election day. While Asian voter turnout for returned ballots actually increased by 1.6% points come election day relative to their registration, for Black voters the rate of returned ballots fell slightly by 1.3% with respect to their share of registration.

However, the group which saw the greatest “disappearance”of voters was Latinos, with a 16.9% “loss” of ballots, or more than half of ballots with Latino voters going “unsent” after registration. Whites, by contrast, increased their share returned ballots from their share of voter registration by about 17% come the day of the election.

Is there a way to be more specific, however, or to see more about L.A. voters besides their age and racial category? Below, the numbers in each column show: age group, the “living situation” of voters in terms of whether they own homes or rent apartments, and some additional data.

L.A. County Voter Turnout in more detail, according to Tableau Public

This latter graphic shows that homeowners accounted for 61% of the 454,971 ballots turned in by election day, while apartment renters accounted for less than 28% of those same ballots. Additionally, we can also see that a sizable portion of vote-by-mailers were registered for November’s general election in 2016, while in 2017 less than 5,000 newly registered voters of a total of 24,519 actually cast their votes by election day.

With all of this data combined, we can say with confidence that 6 out of every 10 vote-by-mail voters for this last election were white, and that about the same share owned a home in L.A. County. At the same time, one voter was Latino, one was Black, and one was Asian, with apartment sharing or renting likely concentrated among these non-white groups.

In effect, what’s clear about politics in Los Angeles is that while most of its constituents are probably stuck in traffic somewhere, that is, in terms of that 52% non-white registration rate, it is mostly Senior, white, and home-owning L.A. County voters who are electing the city’s officials and policy-making decisions.

At a time when the 2011 Texas legislative session has just been indicted for drawing district lines discriminating against Black and Latino voters in favor of Republican Anglos, we might say that L.A. is a 2011 Texan Republican’s perfect empty canvas, a dreamland of political opportunity for white identity politics given the disaffection of so many non-white voters.

Isn’t that something?! But of course there’s more the story; until the next time.

J.T.