Some Relevant Facts on “District Elections” to Consider….

This morning there’s word some folks downtown are trying to change how we elect the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco (again). This time, there’s a proposal to elect some via district and some city-wide. As with any “reform” in San Francisco, this is less about making government work better for all, and is instead another attempt to game the system for one side over another.
That’s not to say that the current system, implemented in 2000, didn’t do the same thing. However, I’d suggest that the problem isn’t with district elections as a concept (even in a smaller city like San Francisco) – instead it’s been the inability of certain factions to adapt and overcome the new terrain. Put simply, if you are faced with district elections, you need to find good people that you can work with to go forth and run who are actually, well, you know, known in the neighborhoods they’ll be representing.
This is basic campaign strategy 101, and yet for almost 10 years, this concept seems to have been lost on some, who seem to want to only support candidates who merely take orders, like a waiter or a waitress in a diner. There are at least two Supervisors elected in 2008 who could have been defeated, had perhaps one side used some tactics not involving the political equivalent of a sledgehammer, but didn’t, and well, they lost.
However, there’s one thing lost in all the discussions about “district elections” that people have generally missed as they blabber on SFGate comments about “the system”- prior to 2000 it was literally impossible to run against a single incumbent Supervisor. Yes, you read that right. If you didn’t like what Supervisor John Doe was doing, and you wanted to run against him and give voters that choice, it couldn’t happen. (Yes, we did have district elections for a short time, which elected Sup. Milk, among others, but it was repealed soon after the assassinations in 1979.)
That’s because of the peculiar way Supervisors were elected prior to 2000. Basically you had many candidates run en masse for Supervisor for a few open spots. The top vote getters would get the seats on the Board, and everyone else would lose.
If we were using this system today, we’d have five spots for people to run for. Every single candidate from the serious to the goofball, would all be on the ballot. This, being SF, you’d have literally a bajillion names to choose from. You, the voter would pick 5, and the top vote getters would be elected, and the rest would lose. You can see how this protects incumbents, who’d have the most money available and “name ID” (which you San Francisco voters really get off on), and how difficult it would be to target a poor performing incumbent who has a lot of cash.
It’s fairly stupid, and between this, and the fact that in the 1990s at one point the Mayor at the time appointed most of the Supervisors anyway, you can see why people rebelled and sent a very loud, very pointed “FU” to Mayor Willie Brown and his appointed princes and princesses.
The only problem with district elections in San Francisco, frankly, is the size of the districts. They’re so small, and often so oddly drawn, they lead to some strange stuff. For example, I used to live on one side of Judah Street and was in Sup. Elsbernd’s district. I moved a block away, and suddenly was in Sup. Mirkarimi’s district. WTF?
There is one idea, however, that might have been worth considering, but I think back in those hyper partisan days when it was the downtown folks sticking it to everyone the way the progressives do now, no one was interested. In many cities (such as Seattle, where I lived for 7 years), they elect candidates citywide, but each position is “numbered.”
This way, each council seat has its own list of candidates to choose from. If there’s an incumbent people can run against them, and if there isn’t, then the seat is open. It creates some accountability with incumbents, but doesn’t have the limits of a district based system, which was a concern amongst some in Seattle. (Oh and in the Irony Department, it was I who first suggested district elections for Seattle based on experiences in the runoff of 2000. Ha!)
The point is simply this – we have been trying to game the system for one side or another with lots and lots of laws and rules, many of which contradict each other. We tried to punish “big time consultants” with a special tax and filing – we ended up punishing the low-paid campaign manager of the struggling citizen campaign. We passed IRV/RCV/WTF and it has been nothing but an expensive pain in the ass that hasn’t delivered on its promises, or gamed the system well (ironically since IRV it is protecting incumbents and “moderate” candidates for citywide office have been unopposed!). District elections have benefits, but there’s nothing suggesting that City Hall is any more responsive to the citizen on Real Issues (Muni, anyone?) than it was before.
San Francisco citizens deserve a process that allows them to choose who they want to represent them at city hall that’s free of too many corrupting influences, while also being compliant with the Constitution. We do not need the government to game the system to help one faction or another, and we do not need a system so complex, only the wealthy can run.
I can’t imagine how it is that a city with so many smart people has to make things slow, stupid, and difficult, and I’ve got to believe there’s enough Smart People out there who can press the reset button and end the howler monkey nonsense that passes for political debate about issues like this. People have had it with a City That Doesn’t Know How, and would like to get their money’s worth when they pay for a multi billion dollar City/County system that could be doing a lot better.

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