Public Comment

One Person, One Vote (Except in Berkeley)

By the Occasional Curmudgeon*
Tuesday January 24, 2012 - 08:32:00 AM

The Curmudgeon Light was shining on the side of the Campanile the other night, my signal from Planet Editor Becky O’Malley that she wanted me to check in after she’d gotten copies of some emails I’d sent to councilmembers.

“Write something satirical, Curmudge,” Becky ordered, referring to the stultifying subject of voter redistricting, the process of redrawing election districts that follows every decennial census. But how can you be funny about something like redistricting?  

It’s one of those wonkified inside-baseball subjects that few people understand, and so they either nod out or walk away, and before they know it, instead of Dennis Kucinich representing them, they’ve got a rabid Republican who’s proposing to take their Social Security and invest it in Enron…or worse, Pacific Gas & Explosions. This is underway right now in Cleveland, where the Repugs are controlling redistricting in such a way that liberal Democrat Kucinich may not only lose his seat in the House of Representatives but wind up residing in an entirely different district—represented by a Republican—without relocating. In their scorched-earth campaign to take ‘Merica back to the nineteenth century, the Repugs have adopted the tactic that if ya’ can’t beat ‘em, eliminate ‘em. 

Well, not here in good ol’ Berzerkeley, this island of fairness, compassion, and gentility, right? Certainly not among our esteemed city council, composed as it is of allegedly moderate and progressive members, right? Oh. Dowwww, wrong! [Homer-slap to Curmudge forehead.] 

It seems that a majority on the Council has seized on Berkeley’s mandatory reorganization of City Council districts to not only temporarily disenfranchise thousands of residents from voting in the 2012 Council election but as a means of possibly squeezing out the governing body’s two most liberal—and thus, “troublesome”—members, Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin. For the full story on this, the Curmudge commends readers to Editor O’Malley’s report on last Tuesday night’s Council meeting and accompanying editorial in the January 17 Planet. (If you choose to read the editorial aloud, you may want to send the children out of the room, as our editor is, shall we say, a bit steamed about the Council’s behavior these days….) 

Briefly, as the 2010 census revealed an imbalance of residents among the growing population of the City’s eight Council districts, the City Charter requires the districts to be redrawn to ensure equal representation, that is, to meet the Charter requirement of “one person, one vote.” To achieve this, each district must be adjusted to accommodate 14,073 residents, and right now, four districts are short by a total of 4,295 residents, meaning that 4,295 voters must be allocated to different districts than the ones they’re currently living in.  

According to Worthington, six workable plans “on where to draw the lines” to equalize the districts before the 2013 elections were submitted to the Council. However District 8 Councilman Gordon Wozniak “has repeatedly proposed to delay redistricting because there is a [seventh] proposal submitted to create two 80-percent ‘student supermajority’ districts.” Worthington claims it would be “illegal” for the Council to adopt such a proposal because “it conflicts with the City Charter by not coming close to the 1986 boundaries,” not to mention that it would result in ejecting both him and Arreguin from their districts and, of course, the Council. 

Now, this proposal could have been placed on the ballot as an amendment to the Charter for voters to decide, but at the January 17 Council meeting, a majority of our revered solons chose to postpone redistricting until the Council could draft and pass its own Charter amendment accommodating the U.C. student population. And as we all know, the gears of government doth grind slowly, like maybe a couple of years in this case, meaning that more than 4,000 residents—including a couple thousand students—won’t have the opportunity to vote in the upcoming Council election. 

It so happens that the Curmudgeon Cave is located in Councilman Wozniak’s district, coincidentally exactly across the street from Worthington’s. When I learned of the possibility that even one Berkeley resident would be prevented from voting in the next Council election, I got angry and fired off those e-mails to every council member and Mayor Tom Bates. 

“So what comes next?” I fumed. “A poll tax? Means testing? Are we now the Deep South in the nineteenth century? This is ridiculous and un-American—not to mention, ‘un-Berkeley-like.’” 

Hard on the heels of my rant, I received Wozniak’s e-mail quoted verbatim in Becky’s January 17 Council report, presumably dispatched to all District 8 residents. Because Council elections are “staggered,” he explained, half of the seats come up for election every two years, i.e. four this year and the other four in 2014, “a routine process” that Wozniak termed “election deferral.” But what jumped out at me was his statement that this routine process “only affects voting for City Council for a small fraction of people.” 

Once again ignoring my better angels’ whispered advice never to respond in anger, I fired off an e-mail to Wozniak saying, among other things, “Why shouldn’t every legal resident of Berkeley have the right to vote in a council election, even one that’s staggered? I think an argument could be made that decisions of the City Council have a greater immediate impact on the lives of residents than those of any other level of government.” Wozniak responded, essentially reiterating his original boilerplate e-mail—a feeble attempt to educate silly me about the necessary machinations of government—and so it went until the matter was put to rest last Tuesday night with the Council’s majority decision to lay redistricting aside until the City Charter was amended.  

Redistricting was intended to ensure fairness in the election process; instead, political power brokers all over America have turned it into a blunt object to bludgeon their opponents. Wozniak has continued to protest that barring “a small fraction” of voters from weighing in on the 2012 Council election is not disenfranchisement. Sorry Councilman, but I just can’t wrap my little brain around that; it must have something to do with how I was raised by Depression- and WWII-sobered parents. Then there were those history and civics classes in public schools in a gritty Pennsylvania steel town in which we learned about the sacrifices that American colonists made, going to war against the most powerful monarchy on the planet just so they could choose their own leaders. 

But that was then, and this is now. Things change. Back then, we were fighting for democracy; today, apparently, it’s at the altar of oligarchy we worship. 

* The Occasional Curmudgeon is Berkeley writer David Esler.