DALY CITY -- San Mateo County has undergone a profound change over the past half-century, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the Board of Supervisors.

Once almost completely white, the county in recent decades has seen a dramatic influx of ethnic minorities, particularly Asians and Latinos, who together now comprise more than half the population. Despite that transformation, the board has retained its alabaster hue, amid a big-money, at-large voting system that critics say protected the status quo. Since 1955, county records show there have been just two minority supervisors, one Latino and one black.

Rose Jacobs Gibson, who is black, managed to win three elections, but only after she was first appointed to the board in 1999. That offers a bleak lesson, said Ruben Abrica, mayor of largely Latino and black East Palo Alto.

"If people are going to wait around hoping that they get appointed," Abrica said, "that's not a good example of a functioning democracy."

But the electoral scales may soon tip closer to balance. After settling an anti-discrimination lawsuit in February, San Mateo County became the last county in California to move from countywide to district elections, meaning candidates will be elected only by voters in their supervisorial district starting next year.

The county is now reviewing the maps of its five districts to make sure the boundaries are fair. A committee will decide Tuesday whether to submit one or more new maps to the Board of Supervisors for approval Oct. 8.

For years county leaders resisted the push for district elections, claiming the at-large system, in which candidates represented a district but were elected by voters countywide, ensured supervisors were accountable to the entire county. Faced with a lawsuit, however, they put the matter on the ballot in November and lost.

Proponents of district elections say the old format squashed competition -- no incumbent has lost since 1980, according to the county grand jury -- and infringed on the voting power of minority groups. District elections will encourage a more diverse pool of candidates, they say, by removing key barriers that have confronted community-based candidates. Running countywide required a lot of time and money, as candidates had to appeal to all the voters in a county of 739,000 people spread across 448 square miles.

"A countywide system favors candidates with either high built-in name recognition or substantial campaign funds," said Supervisor Dave Pine, who raised upward of $500,000 to win his seat in 2011 but nonetheless has advocated for district elections. "So if you're a candidate without one of those two things, your odds of winning are significantly reduced."

Racial transformation

Between the 1970 and 2010 censuses, the percentage of San Mateo County residents who indicated they were non-Hispanic whites dropped by almost exactly half, from 85.1 to 42.3 percent.

Today the highest concentrations of Caucasians are found in places like Atherton and Portola Valley, which number among the most affluent towns in the United States. But the composition of the rest of the county has been altered by a broad range of ethnic minorities, particularly in the north and south.

Nowhere are the county's demographic changes more stark, or the opportunities under district elections more evident, than in Daly City, a densely packed working-class community on the county's fog-prone northwestern border. The county's most populous city, and one of the nation's largest Filipino enclaves, Daly City forms the heart of District 5, where Asians comprise 53 percent of the population.

Robert Rubin, co-lead attorney behind the suit against the county, said it doesn't matter whether voters in future District 5 elections choose an Asian supervisor, though it's likely that will eventually happen. What's important, he said, is that they can finally flex their political muscle.

"They may elect an Anglo, they may elect a Latino, they may elect an African-American," Rubin said. "But that community will be able to determine who that candidate is. That is a landmark precedent."

To fully exercise their newfound power, some observers say, minority groups will need to become more politically engaged. Voter registration lags among Latino and Asian voters. An analysis by a demographics consultant found, for instance, that while Asians make up 51 percent of voting-age citizens in District 5, only 18 percent of the district's registered voters have Asian surnames.

New leaders

The first minority candidate to win a district election may now be sitting on a school board or city council, bodies that in San Mateo County tend to better reflect the ethnic makeup of their communities.

Mike Guingona, a Daly councilman who became the city's first Filipino mayor in 1996, wouldn't say whether he plans to run for supervisor, but acknowledged doing so would be easier under the new system.

"The process has become more accessible," he said, "not just to me, but to everyone."

Those who welcome district elections say it will promote a better understanding of constituents' needs. That's important in North Fair Oaks, said Manuel Ramirez, an activist in the unincorporated area of nearly 15,000 people southeast of Redwood City.

Nearly a quarter of the mostly Latino community is below the federal poverty level. Problems include crumbling infrastructure, dilapidated houses and sewage overflows, Ramirez said.

"The county is extremely large and has a lot of issues," said Ramirez, 43, "and I think over the years they kind of forgot about us."

The situation has improved under Supervisor Warren Slocum, who won the District 4 seat last year, Ramirez said. And the county is building a new, bigger health clinic in North Fair Oaks. But in the long term, he said, local accountability will produce better results.

County officials argue the board has been responsive to the needs of minorities and low-income communities. For instance, the progressive county has near-universal health coverage for children.

Case study

The city of Watsonville's fight over its electoral system illustrates how district elections can spur political engagement among disaffected citizens.

The agricultural community in Santa Cruz County had just one Latino on the City Council when it held its first district election in 1989. Today a majority of council members are Latino, as is the city manager.

Oscar Rios, who became the city's first Latino mayor in 1992, said the changes in Watsonville were gradual but far-reaching. Latinos on the council began having a voice in appointments to commissions, bringing a new generation of minorities into the system. Luis Alejo, tapped for the Watsonville Planning Commission in 2006, is now an Assembly member.

"For the first time people felt that they had power, they felt that they had a voice," said Rios, who served a total of 17 years during three stints on the council. "They never had a voice before. It was the good old boys who controlled everything."

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes.

NEW MAPS
The District Lines Advisory Committee will decide whether to recommend new supervisorial district maps to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: College of San Mateo, Choral Room, Building 2, Room 110, 1700 W. Hillsdale Blvd., San Mateo
Information: Visit www.smcdistrictcommittee.org.