Proportional representation would make the Board of Supervisors more representative

Opinion

Posted by
Tue, June 22, 2010


The way we elect the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors is broken. The Charter Review Committee is about to recommend single-district elections, but there’s a better solution: proportional representation.

Like most of California’s 58 counties, San Mateo’s Board of Supervisors has five members, elected from five geographic districts. But San Mateo is the only county that elects supervisors at large to single-district seats. That is, all the voters in the county vote on each seat individually.

Single-district elections aren’t the answer

A year ago, the county grand jury recommended that the county consider single-district elections, in which only the residents of a particular district would elect that district’s supervisor.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights has said that they believe "the county’s use of an at-large election system dilutes the vote of minority residents."

At-large elections are majority-take-all. A simple majority of county voters can choose all five supervisors. This leaves the rest of us with a fairly uniform board, that represents little of San Mateo County’s considerable diversity. That diversity only begins with ethnicity. It extends to most political questions that concern the Board: development, budgets, jobs, education, coastal conservation, environmental issues generally, public transit, and more.

Single-district elections won’t fix this problem. Racially gerrymandered districts depend, perversely, on a pattern of segregation, It leaves ethnic group members in other districts and non-members in the district unrepresented. And it assumes all members of an ethnic community share the same political values.

Proportional representation lets voters find common interests

Under a proportional representation system, voters form alliances to elect their own supervisors. The alliances depend on common interests, not on how district lines were drawn. The great majority of voters end up helping to elect one or more supervisors of their own choosing.

Suppose that San Mateo County were to adopt a proportional election system that elected five supervisors every two or four years, using the Single Transferable Vote. Under STV, each voter ranks candidates in order of preference (1,2,3…). With five seats to be filled, a candidate needs at least 1/6 (16.7%) of the total vote to be elected to a seat.

With STV, a minority group the size of San Mateo’s Asian or Hispanic population can easily win a seat on the board. In fact, many large groups of voters, no matter what their affinity, can win a seat, by joining together over issues of their own choosing. No pre-arrangement or formal organization is required: STV finds voting blocs through its counting mechanism.

The majority of voters can still elect a majority of supervisors, but smaller groups are represented as well.

Hispanic voters in San Mateo are so scattered that no amount of gerrymandering would be able to create a district in which they can elect their own supervisor. It might be possible, with creative (likely illegal) gerrymandering, to carve out a majority-Asian district, but that assumes that ethnicity is the single most important criterion for Asian voters.

Another group that feels chronically disenfranchised by County government is the county’s Coastside voters, with only about 5% of the county vote. The Coastside also does not speak with a single voice on its most divisive issue: development.

PR offers an alternative to Coastside voters (as well as to other voters in similar situations) by letting them ally with like-minded voters across the county, and, if those voters achieve at least 1/6 of the vote, win a seat on the board.

Proportional representation disenfranchises fewer voters

Under proportional representation, voters themselves have the power to form voting coalitions of their own choosing, not dictated by gerrymandered district lines, and to determine their own political representation.

The resulting board represents a cross section of the voters and their views on their priority issues, as should be the case with representative government.

PR can bring other benefits as well, including lower campaign costs and more competitive elections. It preserves the rights of the majority, while giving representation to minority groups. And it’s eminently practical, being widely used around the world, as well as in Minneapolis and Cambridge, MA

As Ernest Naville wrote in 1865, "In a democratic government the right of decision belongs to the majority, but the right of representation belongs to all."


For more on the subject of proportional representation (PR), see my PR Foundation site.