The Bay Area is home to two of the nation’s three most powerful politicians in Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. It is one of the most politically involved regions in the U.S. and is credited as the birthplace of the modern Free Speech Movement.

So why can’t it find enough people to run for its city councils? At least five Bay Area cities have canceled entire or partial city council elections this year because of a lack of candidates, opting to appoint the only people filing. Danville, Lafayette, Hillsborough, Mill Valley, and Cotati canceled their whole council elections.

Vice President Kamala Harris is a powerful politician on the national stage who got her start in the Bay Area. Who might follow in her footsteps? (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson via Bay City News)

“Municipalities have the ability, per the elections code, to cancel their contest if less than or the exact number of candidates have filed for the available seats,” said Dan Miller, who manages candidate filing for the Marin County Elections Department. “This doesn’t happen often, but it’s not unusual.”

Local election officials say the movement from at-large elections (where the highest vote-getters win, regardless of address) to district elections (in which one person represents select neighborhoods based on geography or interest) is the root cause of elections being canceled.

City council districts used to be for bigger cities like San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland. The landscape started changing after the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 was passed.

The law says at-large elections are discriminatory if they impair the ability of a protected class to elect candidates of its choice or otherwise influence an election. But the law doesn’t force cities to switch.

“Most jurisdictions do that of their own volition, to avoid lawsuits,” said Jim Irizarry, the assistant chief election officer of San Mateo County. “More people are accusing discrimination in at-large elections.”

A place of their own

The 2001 law gives underrepresented groups living in the same part of a city the ability to elect someone they feel represents their interests.

“As districts split into smaller sub-districts (trustee or council areas), there may be less competition for each seat as the pool of potential candidates gets smaller,” said John Gardner, the assistant registrar of voters for Solano County. “We’ve observed this pattern in 2018 and 2020 local contests as more districts moved to additional split districts vs. at-large contests.”

District elections can dramatically alter the local political landscape. For example, instead of one council election, Redwood City now has seven.

The flip side is saving money. Danville saved an estimated $64,000 to $96,000 by re-appointing its two council members up for re-election this year. Lafayette saved between $38,000 and $57,000, according to a staff report.

Napa is also without challengers for its two open spots, but still chose to go ahead with the election in November.

“They could’ve canceled the election,” said John Tuteur, the Napa County Registrar of Voters. “It will cost them about $80,000 to put the two unopposed incumbents on the ballot.”

“We did it for a couple reasons,” said Napa City Councilmember Bernie Narvaez. “People still get to vote, or not vote. I don’t want to remove that right of a person to vote. And (if there’s no election) then we’d have two appointed council members. They should be elected.”

“As districts split into smaller sub-districts (trustee or council areas), there may be less competition for each seat as the pool of potential candidates gets smaller.”

John Gardner, Solano County assistant registrar of voters

With no challengers, Woodside also could have canceled this year’s council election, as it has only incumbents running for two open seats.

“They are electing to have candidates on the ballot because they want to offer the chance for write-in candidates,” said Irizarry.

While cities like Suisun City (the mayoral race has no challengers) and Watsonville (three out of four districts had one candidate file) didn’t completely cancel elections, council spots are going to the only people running in their district.

Napa went to district elections in 2020. Narvarez said previous discrimination lawsuits against cities without district voting were “a trigger point.”

“But it does bring more equity to the election process,” said Narvaez, who considers himself part of the Latinx community. “It’s more of a focus-based election, though I think there’s still a learning curve.”

This article is part of Local News Matters’ participation in Democracy Day: a nationwide initiative by all types of media to draw attention to the crisis facing American democracy and provide context and information to encourage public dialogue.