More People of Color Are Running For and Winning Local Offices, But Bay Area Electeds Still Do Not Represent the Region’s Diversity

The share of electeds of color increased after the 2020 elections, reflecting steady progress. However across the region, people of color are still underrepresented in top elected offices with many cities without even a single elected of color.

By Michelle Huang and Kimi Lee of Bay Rising*

The Bay Area is one of the most diverse regions in the nation, but this diversity is not well reflected in the halls of political power, where top local elected officials remain disproportionately White. While racial representation alone does not automatically translate into equitable policies, it matters. Without political representation, it is harder for communities that face discrimination and structural racism to have their issues considered in the policy process. On the other hand, when individuals from traditionally excluded communities are elected to office, they bring critical community knowledge and relationships with them. This can result in better policies and increased trust and a sense of belonging, strengthening multiracial democracy and increasing the vitality of our region. 

Recognizing the importance of political representation to regional equity, the Bay Area Equity Atlas tracks this metric through our Diversity of Electeds indicator. To examine how well the Bay Area’s top elected officials represent the diversity of the region’s population, we assembled a unique dataset on the race/ethnicity and gender of the mayors and councilmembers of the region’s 101 municipalities, and the county supervisors and district attorneys for the region’s nine counties. We have collected data for four points in time to reflect electeds holding office from 2018 to 2021.

This analysis both updates our previous research on the diversity of electeds and provides a new, unique exploration of the diversity of candidates for elected office in cities that have recently switched from at-large to district-based elections. Over the past decade, 33 Bay Area cities have made the switch to district-based elections as a response to the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 and potential lawsuits. District-based elections can be a valuable tool to increase the diversity of the candidate pool for local office, as candidates run specifically in their district rather than campaigning at the city level. This gives residents in each district, especially in historically marginalized communities whose votes are diluted at a city level, more voting power to determine their representation on city council. 

Our key findings include:

  • About 34 percent of top elected officials in the Bay Area are now people of color, up from 29 percent in 2019 and 26 percent in 2018. Despite this steady increase, people of color remain highly underrepresented since they make up 60 percent of the total population.
  • Across the region, the share of elected officials who are Black increased from 6 percent to 8 percent, but 74 of 101 Bay Area municipalities still have no Black city councilmembers.
  • Over the past several years, the share of Asian American electeds has remained around 10 percent, far below the 25 percent of the general population who are Asian American. 
  • Latinx electeds gained 16 new positions; however, Latinx people only represent 13 percent of Bay Area elected positions despite comprising nearly a quarter of the region’s population. 
  • District-based elections show promise as a way to increase representation compared to at-large elections. Places that switched to district-based elections in recent years are seeing an increase in the diversity of candidates for local office.

Despite notable wins for candidates of color in the last couple of years, the region continues to lag behind widespread political representation for people of color. Campaign finance and election reforms and investments in programs that support people of color in running for elected office as well as increased voter engagement efforts are all needed to ensure that the region’s diversity is truly reflected in local elected offices.

In the November 2020 election, people of color gained 29 additional local and county positions, and now hold 34 percent of elected seats.

In the November 2020 elections, people of color gained 29 additional seats among top elected officials, nudging the total share of electeds of color up from 29 to 34 percent. The region gained 16 Latinx electeds, 8 Black electeds, and two Asian American electeds across counties and cities. Among the region’s 101 cities and towns, 28 gained at least one person of color in their city council representation.

With each election, the Bay Area’s electeds are becoming more diverse and reflective of the region’s demographics: in 2018 (the year we first began collecting this data), 26 percent of electeds were people of color. 

Despite this steady increase in political representation in the region, people of color remain vastly underrepresented in local government. While people of color make up 60 percent of the total population in the region, they hold 34 percent of top elected positions. Focusing on cities and towns, a quarter of Bay Area cities still have no people of color represented in their city government. Sixty-six cities and towns saw no change, and seven cities and towns lost one elected of color.

The share of elected officials who are Black increased from 6 percent to 8 percent at the regional level, but 74 of 101 Bay Area municipalities have no Black city councilmembers.

Progressive policies and bold leadership are required to rectify the decades of anti-Black policies that have created racial disparities in income, employment, and educational outcomes. While representation alone does not always equate with equitable change, having elected officials who share the lived experiences of Black communities is a key step in advancing progressive policies.  

In the region as a whole, the share of elected officials who are Black increased from 6 percent to 8 percent, and is now slightly above the share of the region’s population that is Black (6 percent). Twelve cities/towns gained at least one Black elected, and the city of Hercules in Contra Costa County elected two new Black officials. 

However, the majority of Bay Area cities — 74 out of 101 — have no Black elected officials. This means that 88,000 Black Bay Area residents (one in five Black residents) have no Black official representing them in city council. These include the residents of American Canyon, Brentwood, East Palo Alto, Lafayette, and Richmond, the five cities/towns that lost Black officials in the 2020 elections.

Over the past several years, the share of Asian American electeds has remained around 10 percent, far below the 25 percent of the general population who are Asian American.**

During the pandemic, there has been a disturbing increase in violence against Asian American residents, especially among those who are working class, older, and with low English proficiency. Visibility and political representation is one way in which Asian American residents can assert public voice and power. However, Asian American communities are vastly underrepresented among Bay Area elected officials.

Eleven cities added an Asian American elected to their city council (with Santa Clara seeing the highest increase at two electeds). At the same time, 10 cities also saw a decrease in Asian American electeds. In four of these cities, the position was replaced by a White elected. While Vallejo lost two of its three Asian American electeds, other people of color won those positions. Since 2018, Vallejo’s city council has remained firmly at 43 percent White in a city that is only 24 percent White. 

Overall, 66 Bay Area cities and towns do not have any Asian American electeds, even though 765,300 Asian American residents, or 40 percent of the region’s Asian American population, live in these cities. Most notably, San Jose, home to one in five of the region’s Asian American residents, does not have a single Asian American city councilmember.

The Asian American community in the Bay Area is large and diverse, and not all ancestry groups are represented equally by electeds. Those with Chinese and Filipino ancestry make up 8 and 4 percent of the region’s population, respectively, but each of these groups only make up 3 percent of the region’s electeds. Residents with Indian, Korean, and Vietnamese heritage are also underrepresented by one to two percentage points. And there are no electeds with Pacific Islander ancestry. 

Latinx electeds gained 16 new positions; however Latinx people only represent 13 percent of Bay Area elected positions despite being nearly a quarter of the region’s population.

The Latinx population is one of the fastest-growing groups in the Bay Area, and Latinx representation in local government has also increased in recent years. Eighteen cities and towns saw an increase of at least one elected official who is Latinx. Healdsburg added two new Latinx elected officials, and Redwood City, which has had a majority White city council since at least 2018 when we began data collection, elected two new Latinx city councilmembers and one new Asian American city councilmember, making the city council majority people of color. 

Despite this increase in Latinx electeds, this progress has not occurred evenly across the region and Latinx residents remain woefully underrepresented in office. About one in four Bay Area residents are Latinx, but just 13 percent of electeds are Latinx. One in five Latinx residents in the region live in the 55 municipalities without a single Latinx elected official.

Shifting from At-Large to District-Based Elections Shows Promise as a Strategy to Diversify Candidates for Elected Office

Over the past three years, a wave of Bay Area cities have shifted from at-large to district-based elections. Twenty-six out of the 33 cities that use district-based elections in the Bay Area have created district-based positions since the 2018 elections. While some cities, including Berkeley, Oakland, San Jose, and Woodside, have had district-based councilmembers since the late 1970s, this shift is largely influenced by the passing of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 which encourages municipalities to adopt district-based elections to increase fair representation of different racial groups in city government. District-based elections lower the cost of entry for candidates by allowing them to focus time, money, and resources on the constituents of a smaller geography compared to running a costly citywide campaign. Creating city council districts also increases the voting power of specific racial/ethnic communities whose votes may be diluted in a citywide election, especially in localities where they are the minority.

To examine the near-term results of changing to district-based elections, we analyzed 20 of those 33 cities and compared the racial/ethnic composition of candidates in the two election cycles prior and up to two election cycles after switching to city district-based elections. Using information available on campaign websites, voting guides, and social media, we collected the race/ethnicity and gender of the candidates and sent email confirmations to candidates offering them the opportunity to edit their information. We were able to collect data for 708 out of 967 candidates. We focused on the 20 cities for which we had data for more than half of the candidates. It is important to note that it is too soon to fully assess the impact of the switch to district elections in these cities, since many sitting officials were elected prior to the switch to district-based elections; however, this early look provides some insights.

Most cities saw an increase in the share of candidates of color after implementing district-based elections.

Out of the 20 cities with sufficient candidate data, 12 cities saw an increase in the share of candidates who were people of color after changing to district-based elections; seven cities saw a decrease; and one city saw no change. 

Livermore saw the highest increase in the share of candidates who are people of color, from 0 to 50 percent. Redwood City saw the second highest increase, from 18 percent in the 2015 and 2018 election cycles to 56 percent in the 2020 election. Half Moon Bay went from having no candidates of color to over a third of candidates being people of color. In Fremont, the number of people of color running for city council more than doubled, from six to 13. Martinez had no candidates of color in the election cycles immediately before and after the switch.

The diversity of candidates is of course impacted by the size of the overall candidate pool. In Menlo Park, Morgan Hill, and San Francisco, the absolute number of candidates of color increased while their share within the candidate pool decreased. Menlo Park saw an increase of four more candidates of color, but the overall candidate pool also increased by 10 people in the period after switching to districts. Our analysis suggests that switching to district-based elections does not have an immediate impact on the absolute number of candidates who run for office: after the switch, the overall candidate pool increased in six cities and decreased in 13 cities.

We also explored whether the growth of populations of color in these cities appeared to play a role in producing more diverse candidate pools. From 2010 to 2019, the 20 cities have seen modest growth in the share of the population composed of people of color (ranging from zero to nine percentage points growth). We found no patterns of correlation between citywide demographic change and changes in the diversity of candidates. Redwood City, for example, saw one of the largest increases in candidates of color but virtually no growth in percentage of residents of color between 2010 and 2019.

Prior to its implementation of district-based voting, Half Moon Bay had an all-White city council since we started collecting data on electeds in 2018. After the change, in the 2020 election, the city’s first Latinx councilmember won the seat for District 3 in the heart of the city, defeating the incumbent mayor with 63 percent of the vote.

The 2020 election was the first election since Redwood City created city council districts. At least one person of color ran for office in each of the four districts that were up for election, and a person of color won the position in all four districts. This is vastly different from the 2018 election, when all candidates were White, and the 2015 election, in which only two people of color ran for office. 

Policies to Increase Pathways to Political Representation

The recent trend toward more diverse and representative local government is promising. While the scope of our data collection does not include age, sexual orientation, or immigration status, the November 2020 election saw many historic wins from young people, progressive leaders, LGBTQ folks, and immigrants. For example, Lissette Espinoza-Garnica was elected to city council in Redwood City, making them the first nonbinary elected official in the Bay Area. San Francisco also elected Myrna Melgar and Connie Chan, who are immigrant women, as supervisors.

There is still much work left to do. Representation of Latinx and Asian American residents in elected office has a long way to go in order to fairly reflect the region’s diversity. Especially in the context of rising anti-immigrant and anti-Asian violence across the nation, having local electeds with knowledge of the experiences of these communities is key to fostering trust between local government and residents. Strengthening the leadership pipeline of Black residents into positions of power across the region, and not in just a few cities, is another essential step to build community power and advance anti-racist policies. 

Building a more equitable Bay Area requires dismantling barriers that have historically kept people of color, low-income and working-class communities, immigrants, and other marginalized groups from political power. With so few people of color in elected positions, young people of color have little legacy of electoral leadership, or elders teaching them why it matters and how to do it. For some immigrants who came to this country after living in military dictatorships and other oppressive government regimes, there is trauma associated with elections and rampant corruption. Language access continues to present a barrier, and many immigrant families are focusing intensively on work and education, leaving little time for political involvement. Working-class people in the region are already stretched to make rent, find affordable childcare, and secure living-wage jobs, especially amidst a pandemic. When polling stations or ballot drop-off boxes are not conveniently located or if early voting and mail-in voting options are limited, it is no surprise that many would choose to prioritize meeting the demands of their life over casting a ballot.

Myriad institutional barriers hinder people of color from getting involved in government elections. Over the last few years, wealthy donors have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into local races, making it very difficult for someone without private wealth to successfully run a campaign, especially for at-large elections. Lack of adequate translation or interpretation for non-English speakers makes it difficult to fully comprehend what is on the ballot or what is being proposed. Black and Brown people have been the target of the criminal justice system, with over-policing and high rates of incarceration, which also pushes their communities away from political engagement. The displacement crisis in the region also deters involvement: people who are housing insecure or who are new to an area are not inclined to run for office. Lack of access to childcare makes it harder for mothers to find time to run. Childcare as a campaign expense is a new concept and was just recently approved as an allowable expense. In addition, lifelong politicians and political parties serve as gatekeepers and often choose their successors rather than supporting grassroots leaders connected to community organizations.

Bay Area funders and policymakers must address these barriers and advance policy changes and programs that result in more candidates from underrepresented communities getting elected to city and county elected offices, especially in communities where people of color are severely underrepresented. Below are some of the concrete actions that government officials, agencies, and the private sector can take to increase election accessibility and voting power.

  • Local city and county governments should pass structural reforms including public campaign financing and campaign finance reform to curtail corporate contributions, secret Super PACs, and “pay-to-play” politics.
  • Cities should consider shifting from at-large to district-based elections. Cities should use independent commissions to ensure that districts are drawn and distributed in an equitable and just manner.
  • Local and national philanthropies and corporations should fund equity-oriented leadership development programs that prepare people from underrepresented communities of color to effectively engage in public policy.
  • Funders, political leaders, and donors should invest in training and support systems for candidates from underrepresented communities to run electoral campaigns, as well as community-based programs that support new elected officials from underrepresented communities once they are in office.
  • Policymakers and funders should support voting reforms and civic engagement efforts that increase voter registration and turnout among underrepresented communities, especially in local elections.
  • Local boards of elections should ensure that polling locations and ballot drop-off boxes are distributed fairly across their jurisdictions and increase accessibility to early voting and mail-in voting options.

* Kimi Lee, director of Bay Rising, serves on the Equity Campaign Leaders Advisory Committee of the Bay Area Equity Atlas. Bay Rising is the only regional civic engagement organization that organizes with working-class people and people of color as voters in the Bay Area year-round. Bay Rising is the umbrella network for San Francisco Rising, Oakland Rising, and Silicon Valley Rising, and represents over 30 grassroots organizations in the Bay Area.

** Data for Asian Americans in the overall population refers to the Asian or Pacific Islander racial/ethnic category.

Author

Michelle Huang
Michelle Huang