Public Comment

District Elections: The Balkanization of Berkeley

By Sharon Hudson
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 10:01:00 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series. 

In my previous commentary, “Where Has All the Power Gone?” (Oct. 9) I provided some examples of bad governance in Berkeley and its costs for all of us. This commentary addresses the role our district elections play in this bad governance. 

The district election system was instituted by initiative in 1986 because the previous system, in which all councilmembers were elected city-wide, was perceived to give disproportionate power to the majority, who in citywide elections could easily fill most council seats with candidates of like mind. Those outside the old progressive in-crowd felt they had little voice on the City Council. The expense of citywide elections also encouraged candidates to pool their resources, leading to “slate” politics. In addition to consolidating power, slate politics diminished the exchange of ideas among candidates and presented a simplistic choice to the electorate. Therefore, the disenfranchised minority pushed for district elections, and they succeeded at the ballot.  

Unfortunately, while eliminating some of the problems of citywide elections, district elections introduced its own unforeseen problems. These have become more noticeable in recent years, as economic and demographic changes have increased controversy around both residential and commercial development. 

There are three major problems with district elections. The first is the unaccountability of councilmembers to the non-district electorate. This causes the second problem, the balkanization of Berkeley. The third problem is that councilmembers have too much power over their own districts. The results of this third problem are “orphan constituents” without representation, and the inhibition of free expression. 

Unfortunately, our district election system violates the first principle of democracy: government’s accountability to the voters. When voting on any issue, seven of nine councilmembers never have to answer to the voters they impact. For this reason, most councilmembers feel free to vote for offensive developments in other districts, or conversely, they have no reason to support targeted civic projects that might greatly enhance life in another district. This has led to the approval of bad developments all over town, and inaction on some serious localized problems. In fact, all incentives in the district election system foster parochialism and selfishness. 

One may argue that district elections are no different from representative government at the state and national levels. But at those levels, the potential tyranny of the majority is substantially mitigated by many factors: (1) constitutional limits on power, including states’ rights, (2) the bicameral system, (3) sufficient funds to access the court system, (4) the threat of executive veto, (5) the filabuster, (6) greater numbers of interacting participants and issues, (7) an almost evenly divided electorate, and (8) a large pool of economically viable candidates. We have none of these in Berkeley.  

So what difference might we see right now if we had citywide elections instead of district elections? Well, if a citywide council member voted to (1) develop the Ashby BART parking lot without notifying anyone, (2) turn West Berkeley over to big developers, (3) allow the university and developers to control our downtown planning, (4) ignore crime in South Berkeley, (5) use People’s Park as a dumping ground for social problems, (6) ignore university damage to surrounding neighborhoods, (7) threaten to close fire stations to blackmail residents into not demanding budget responsibility, (8) remove and further constrain scarce downtown parking, and (9) waste taxpayers’ money on inefficient employees and social programs—enough people around town might eventually get mad enough to kick the bum out. And voting together, they would be able to do so. But a majority of our council supports all of these things. Each council member is careful to vote “correctly” on the issues that impact his or her own constituents, paying no attention to the damage done to others, without fear of retribution at the polls. In fact, they will be rewarded for dumping municipal problems elsewhere.  

Twenty-plus years of this system has balkanized Berkeley, undermining our united vision and diminishing our ability to work together. Candidates narrowly focus on their own district issues and are not forced to address or reveal their views or competency on citywide issues. Well-intentioned Berkeley voters perhaps assume that their councilmembers will be as responsive to other districts as they are toward their own constitutents, but history indicates otherwise. What should voters do when their council member gives them good service, but ignores the pain of other districts? Shall we look the other way? How does this impact community relations?  

District elections also damage the comity of the council itself. Many members of the council seem to thoroughly dislike each other. Perhaps having other councilmembers vote to damage their districts makes them mad. Perhaps there is an uneven distribution of stress, labor, and reward among councilmembers, based on unequal distribution of problems and resources around the city. Perhaps they simply have fewer common philosophies and personal relationships than they did under the citywide system. Whatever the reason, the council’s internal conflicts compromise its ability to work together on even simple issues. This, in turn, gives more power to staff, and less to the citizens the council is supposed to serve. 

The third major drawback of our current district election system is that district elections give councilmembers too much power within their own districts. There is no political reason for a council member to address an issue within another district. Instead, given their low salaries and the desire not to alienate a colleague, they have every reason not to. This is a perverse incentive for councilmembers not to serve the public. When councilmembers routinely defer to their colleagues on internal district issues, they call it “respectful,” but it is really self-serving and damaging to the polity.  

This deference produces “orphan constituents”: citizens who have nowhere to turn for help if their own council member is ineffective or uninterested in their problem. Only a few councilmembers have been responsive to the problems of residents of other districts, or to their own constituents who disagree with them. More common under district elections have been cases of indifferent, unproductive, and occasionally even vindictive councilmembers, which have sometimes deprived their constituents of effective representation for years. 

Even worse, this excessive power over the district inhibits free expression of ideas, and even democracy itself. Well aware of the orphan constituent problem, which is common around town, people fear alienating their current or future council member. Because they are entirely dependent upon their council member, many constituents avoid vigorously confronting them on issues about which they disagree.  

Given this dependency, and the high likelihood that the incumbent will win the next election, running for office against incumbents is dicey. Challenging a district incumbent is more personal than running in a field of citywide candidates. So while the intensity of much needed political debates may be reduced, races become more personalized. This increases the likelihood that the loser’s supporters will have their voices ignored for the next four years. 

Berkeley is a complex, diverse city with many problems and many potentials, tight budgets and little land. We must all work together. Unfortunately, the district election system, as it now stands, makes it very difficult to do so. In my next commentary I will suggest some solutions to the problems created by district elections. 


Sharon Hudson is a longtime Berkeley resident, southside renter, and old-style progressive.