Public Comment

District Elections: Finding a Middle Ground

By Sharon Hudson
Thursday October 30, 2008 - 09:56:00 AM

Sharon Hudson’s previous two commentaries on Berkeley elections appeared in the Oct. 6 and 16 issues of the Berkeley Daily Planet. 

In my previous commentary, “The Balkanization of Berkeley,” I argued that district elections contribute to Berkeley’s inability to function effectively. First, council members are never accountable to almost ninety percent of those they impact. Second, district elections balkanize Berkeley and reduce our ability to work together. Third, council members have too much power over their own districts, which leads to “orphan constituents” without representation, and inhibits free expression and challenge to incumbents.  

For these reasons, I believe that Berkeley should revisit the district election system. I don’t recommend returning to the previous citywide election of all council members. But we could modify the district election system and mitigate its drawbacks.  

A simple modification would be to combine our eight districts into four districts, with two council members from each district. This is a very common municipal structure. Providing a second representative for constituents might considerably reduce the orphan constituent and inhibition problems. Larger district size would reduce geographical parochialism and produce a wider field of candidates per district. The two council members should be able to work together effectively, while staggering elections would prevent two-person slates within districts.  

Although this system wouldn’t create direct accountability to voters in other districts, it would increase the power of each district to defend itself, because council members thinking of doing damage to another district would alienate two colleagues instead of only one. On the downside, larger districts increase campaign spending, and if district majorities consistently outvoted minorities to elect two very similar candidates, it would reduce some benefits of having two representatives.  

A more comprehensive solution would be a hybrid system, with some (two to four) council members elected citywide and others (four to eight) by district. This would partially address all three problems with district elections. The citywide candidates would be accountable to all voters, and would give orphan constituents a place to turn. Candidates could run for citywide seats without alienating the incumbents in their districts, and would bring a citywide perspective to the council. While the citywide portion of the mix would still be subject to the disadvantages of the slate system, this could be reduced by staggered elections.  

I prefer a refinement of the hybrid system that would improve out-of-district accountability. We could require that after two terms as district representatives, council members would have to either sit out a district election (permitting others to run), or would have to run for one of the citywide seats. This would create accountability, because during their first two terms, district representatives who wanted to serve another consecutive term on the council would have to earn broad voter approval so they could win a citywide seat.  

I generally oppose term limits because they reduce decision makers’ experience, and empower staff and lobbyists relative to elected representatives. But the proposed term limits would only be temporary and within the district; I don’t propose term limits for citywide seats or a ban on returning to the district seat after sitting out one cycle. The alternative—council members who are never answerable to almost ninety percent of the voters they impact—is much worse than targeted term limits.  

Another possiblity would be a proportional voting system, in which those outside a district also cast votes in other districts’ elections. Perhaps each voter outside a district would have 1/7 vote in that district’s election, so the cumulative votes from around town would equal those of voters within the district. This is something like an “instant” hybrid system. Although in theory proportional voting should increase accountability and reduce orphan constituents, how well it would work in practice would depend on council members’ calculations of the numbers of votes to be gained by any out-of-district action.  

The obvious downside of the proportional system is its mathematical complexity. However, this shouldn’t be a problem with computerized elections. The voters and the council members themselves would encounter no more complexity than anyone encounters in a citywide system, that is, the task of educating themselves about a number of citywide issues and candidates. In any case, a proportional system would permit council members to concentrate primarily on their own districts, while reducing balkanization somewhat.  

Finally, a non-intuitive but intriguing—and very simple—idea is to keep our district elections, but eliminate the requirement that candidates live within their districts. This would indirectly increase accountability by instilling some fear in incumbents of being effectively challenged by popular candidates from across town, even if they see no threat within their own districts. It would provide many more electoral options for both voters and candidates. It would permit people to serve on the council even if their political views are at odds with most of their own district, preventing loss of good talent. It would permit candidates who have strong ties to a district to run even if they don’t live there (e.g., they might work there, own a business there, or have recently moved out). Remember, under the old citywide election system, people always voted for people who lived outside their areas. The district voters could decide for themselves whether a candidate from outside their district is able to represent them well.  

Of course, each of the ideas presented has some potential problems. One drawback to introducing any citywide candidates is that citywide campaigning favors moneyed interests and moneyed candidates—and hence, entrenched incumbency. And campaign contribution limits and expenses will again make slate politics for the citywide seats very attractive. But the citywide seats would be relatively few, and staggering elections would cut this number in half for each election.  

The idea of introducing even a few citywide council members frightens many Berkeleyans, who fear that minority interests may be disadvantaged, as they were before 1986. The fear of the “tyranny of the majority” is well founded—a rude testament to how divided Berkeley is, and how shamefully far we are from being a compassionate, united city. Having experienced the tyranny of the majority myself, I would not like to introduce it back into the system.  

However, it is unclear how “majority” and “minority” interests would play out under any of these systems today, because Berkeley politics is in flux, with greatly diminished “party” philosophies and influence. As long as we don’t return to a system of only citywide candidates, I think the advantages of instituting some citywide candidates would far outweigh the glaring disadvantages of the district-only sytem: unaccountability, balkanization, lack of representation, and inhibition of political discourse.  

Thomas Jefferson suggested that governments need to change every generation. The astonishing dysfunctionality of the City of Berkeley, which is rotting from within despite glossy propaganda from City Hall read in blissful ignorance in cozy back yards, indicates that the time for change is here. It is vital that we create political structures that encourage open expression of all ideas, respect minority interests, give people multiple options for representation, create accountability, reward service, foster civil behavior, and reduce parochialism. However, because the change from citywide to district elections had some unintended consequences, we want to think carefully before changing again—but let’s not fear to do so. I hope that broad discussion in the community will yield a new electoral form that will work better for Berkeley. 



Sharon Hudson is a long-time Berkeley resident, Southside renter, and old-style Progressive.