Charter Review Committee recommends putting district elections on Nov ballot


By on Mon, June 28, 2010

The Board of Supervisors will hear recommendations from the Charter Review Committee on Tuesday, June 29, at a meeting scheduled for 10am in the Board Chambers, 400 County Center, Redwood City.

At Large v. District Elections

The Supervisors specifically directed the Committee to address the 2008-2009 Grand Jury advisory letter, dated June 30, 2009, recommending that the Committee consider changing the method of electing members of the Board of Supervisors from the current “at large” system to a “by district” system. Starting with its initial meeting on January 13, 2010, the Committee heard significant public comment at each of its meetings, culminating in a vote on April 21, 2010 on the question of whether the current system of electing members of the Board of Supervisors on an “at large” basis should be retained, or a measure be placed on the ballot to change the system to election “by district”. The Committee spent the better part of three meetings receiving information and deliberating. Invited speakers on this topic included: Warren Slocum, Assessor County Clerk Recorder; Stephen A. Chessin, President, Californians for Electoral Reform; Mike Nevin, former member of the Board of Supervisors; Jo Chamberlain, former candidate for the Board of Supervisors; and John Ward, former member of the Board of Supervisors.

Public input and discussion focused predominantly on the question of whether the current system should be maintained or changed to a district system. Debate centered on the competing advantages and disadvantages of the “at large” versus “district” methods of electing Board members. The arguments in favor of each, as presented to the Committee, are:

By District:

  • District elections will result in an increase in minority voice in Board elections, and may increase voter turnout.
  • Lower campaign costs of district elections will increase the universe of potential candidates leading to more competitive elections.
  • District elections will lower election costs for the County when a special election is held.
  • There will be greater accessibility and accountability by the Board of Supervisors to District voters.
  • San Mateo County will no longer be the only remaining county to elect Supervisors using an at large system.

At Large:

  • County voters elect all five Board members, resulting in more accountability to all voters, not just voters in the District.
  • A large portion of the business that comes before the Board of Supervisors affects the entire County, not just individual districts.
  • An at large election attracts candidates who have an established track record of public service.
  • The County and its residents have been well-served by the current at-large system.
  • The voters have twice rejected proposals to change to a system of election “by district” (1978, 1980)

Substantial information was also submitted, testimony taken, and Committee discussion pursued on whether consideration should be given to the adoption by the County of alternative voting systems, including “cumulative,” “proportional”, and “ranked choice”, voting. While interest in these voting systems was high, input from County Counsel indicating significant legal concerns regarding the ability of the County to implement such alternative voting systems through a charter amendment ended consideration of this alternative.

Additionally, testimony was offered concerning whether the current “at large” system of electing members of the Board violates the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). The Committee was advised by County Counsel that the Board had received a letter from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, threatening litigation under the CVRA, and was provided a copy of the letter and the response sent by County Counsel. As matters of litigation are within the purview of the Board of Supervisors and not the Committee, the Committee chose not to discuss or debate the merits of a potential legal challenge to the existing system of electing Board members.

At the conclusion of debate, the Committee voted 11 to 4, with one member declining to state a preference, in favor of retaining the current “at large” method of electing Board members. On a separate vote, the Committee voted 14 to 2 in favor of recommending that a measure be placed on the November 2, 2010 ballot.

These two apparently inconsistent votes describe the opinions of the Committee. A majority of the Committee members were personally persuaded by the arguments in favor of “at large” voting. However, a substantial majority were also persuaded that there was enough energy and public debate of the issue that the voters of the County should be allowed to select the method of electing their representatives to the Board. The outcome of the public vote would either institute election “by district” (through a majority “yes” vote) or confirm the current “at large” system (through a majority “no” vote).

While not a formal recommendation regarding the Charter, members of the Committee urge the Board to consider a separate study of: (1) public financing of elections in San Mateo County, (2) the use of ranked choice, proportional voting and/or cumulative voting, and (3) instant run-off voting.