Can we reform the way we elect the county Board of Supervisors? Tonight

Press release

Posted by on Wed, June 24, 2009

Dave Pine has been conducting a series of meetings with various groups of citizens on the issue of supervisorial election reform in San Mateo County - with the idea of trying to bring the process closer to the voters. Pine is an elected board member of the San Mateo Unified High School District and a volunteer board member of several civic organizations.  He has agreed to bring his presentation to the Coastside Democrats on June 24, 2009, at the Johnston House Depot from 7:30 - 9:30 pm.

Dave’s style is to engage with his audience by encouraging comments, questions and suggestions. He has compiled some surprising statistics and thought-provoking analysis about how things have been done and undone over the years and - if you’re interested in politics - you won’t be bored.

Coastside Democrats

This sounds like a great program and I’m really looking forward to it.  This is a good time to remind you of the following:

<li>Average population of a US
congressional district: 646,952 </li>
<li>Population of San Mateo County:

You need to reach fewer voters to run for Congress than you do to run for the Board of Supervisors.

This should be a “no-brainer”. Regardless of your party affiliation, we should all get behind the concept of district elections rather than elect supervisors ar large thus requiring support from the whole county.

There are 58 counties in California. Only two elect their supervisors at large, San Mateo and a small upstate county.

To run as an at large candidate cost four times as much as if you were running only within your own district, Therefore, you have to gain the support of the special interests.

I attended a Dave Pine presentation at the Sharp Park clubhouse a couple of months ago. He was dead on on this issue.

I can vouch that it will well be worth your time as he has a wealth of facts to present as to why we need district elections in San Mateo County.

John lynch


I recently found out that we are now the one and only county of California’s 58 counties that requires supervisor candidates to run countywide as opposed to by district. Tehama County (which has 59,000 residents spread over 2,000 square miles) used to elect supervisors countywide,  but in November 2008 the voters approved a county charter change providing for supervisors to be elected by district.

Dave Pine

San Mateo’s system of supervisorial districts does seem like the worst possible choice. But while district elections will have the real advantage of smaller electorates, why not fix it right and go to proportional representation?

As with district elections, a PR system would dramatically reduce the number of votes needed to win a seat, but would allow voters to form dynamic coalitions, county-wide, to gain representation.

Here’s a simplistic example. Suppose that, despite the nominally non-partisan character of county boards, voters were inclined to vote along party lines anyway. Suppose as a further simplification that the county is 60% Democratic and 40% Republican.

With at large elections, we’ll elect five Democrats and no Republicans to the board.

With district elections, unless the districts are dramatically gerrymandered, each district will still have a majority of Democrats, and again we’ll have a 5-0 split.

With PR, however, we’d elect three Democrats and two Republicans, and the Board’s composition would reflect that of the county itself.

With the single transferable vote (STV) form of PR, the voter coalitions aren’t restricted to party identification. Voters might vote for candidates advocating coastal preservation (or paving), expanded mass transit, more (or less) rapid development, and the voting system would, to the extent possible, ensure that the Board reflected the priorities and diversity of the entire electorate.

And while we’re at it: let’s double the size of the board, enabling a greater degree of diversity.

I agree that the number of supervisor seats should be doubled, especially if with district elections.

Are there risks to proportional representation in races where the general level of interest is low, but special interest groups have a lot at stake?

County elections are currently dominated by certain unions and business interests that have broad memberships and clear economic interests.  I’d worry that this might persist under a system of proportional representation.

Barry, PR isn’t a cure-all, but it can help in the situation you describe. If motivated special interests are able to bring a majority of voters to the polls, in the current system (or with district elections) they can elect all the board members: majority take all.

Under PR, a majority faction elects only a corresponding majority of the board, leaving at least some seats to other voting groups.

And there’s a secondary benefit: voter interest is likely to increase, because candidates who aren’t backed by the moneyed interests have a real shot at winning seats.

To return to the partisan example (because it’s easier to picture), in a county with 60% Democratic registration, there’s little motivation for Republicans to try to field strong candidates, or for those candidates to run strong campaigns, faced with certain loss. PR changes that, and as a result we have livelier, more competitive, and more informative campaigns.

(The other half of the puzzle is public campaign financing, but that’s a discussion for another evening.)

I agree strongly with Jonathan that a system of proportional representation would be the best way to go.

First, though, let me comment Dave Pine for starting this important conversation, and for correctly pointing out some of the significant issues with our current model for electing the BoS.

He is correct that the current “winner-take-all” at-large system makes it very expensive to run for election to the Board of Supervisors.  The very large population means that there are a lot of voters to contact in a campaign for BoS and that makes it very expensive.

The cost issue for running under the current system makes it hard for a grassroots candidate to have much of a chance in San Mateo County.

But a proportional system, such as Choice Voting (also known as Single Transferable Vote or STV), would not have the drawbacks of our current system, and would have significant benefits over it or over districts.

First, even though Choice Voting /STV would be conducted at-large for the whole county, it doesn’t have the same cost issue.  Because you need to win over a smaller threshold of vote in a proportional system, you can run a much less expensive campaign.  A proportional system is also better suited to grassroots politics.

The benefit of a proportional system like STV over districts is that it is much more flexible over time.  For some elections, voters might be strictly geographically focused and say wanting to elect someone who is totally focused on coastside issues.  In a different election, a constituency of voters across the county might pool together (electorally speaking) to focus on some other key issue facing the county, such as transportation improvements, environmental protection, etc.  Such fluidity of voter emphasis is less possible under a district system.

I certainly could see districts as being better than our current system, but would simply argue that we should broaden the conversation and make sure we look at all of the best options available to us.

Rob Dickinson

An important reminder that this evening David Pine will give his presentation at the Johnston House Depot from 7:30 - 9:30 PM on electing members to the SMC Board of Supervisors by districts rather that at large.

John Lynch

Dave Pine offers the solution in Comment # 3: “Voters Approved A County Charter Change Providing For Supervisors To Be Elected By District” (as a future headline for SM County).

I do not expect those in County office to be supportive, nor their backers who benefit by the BoS decisions, so, if you embrace the thought, be prepared for a hard fight to get it on the Ballot and forming a coalition with those whom you might not agree on every other issue. Representative Democracy is worth the effort!

Well-formed arguments in support are in several preceding posts.

Ken Johnson