With some twenty-four ballot measures to consider on November 6th, you probably are feeling a bit overwhelmed. At least Berkeley Measure R is easy to connect the letter with what the measure is about. “R” stands for “Redistricting,” but after that, it’s not so easy! You’ll be told that Measure R is just a matter of drawing fair and up-to-date district boundaries. Not so!! Be very, very careful!
Redistricting is the basic political strategy game with a goal of building voting districts ensuring the election of one side while decreasing the chances of opponents. The mind-numbing details of redistricting usually put most people to sleep so that those in power get to do what they want. Needless to say, it’s incredibly important for everyone to keep a close eye on the process.
In 1986, because District elections were fiercely opposed by the then self-described progressive Council majority, the issue went on the June ballot as a citizens’ initiative Charter Amendment. It set specific boundaries for eight nearly-equal-in-population Council Districts, and provided that these lines be retained as much as possible after each future ten-year census adjustment.
The day after the election, Mayor Newport and Vice Mayor Fukson appeared in a photo on the front page of the Daily Cal giving the finger to the community when they learned the measure had been approved. Stating that students had been denied a chance to vote on the issue because they leave Berkeley to go home in May, Council action followed by placing a measure on the November ballot repealing district elections entirely.
For most of that year, the issue was hotly debated. Then-Councilmember Nancy Skinner led the campaign against district elections, arguing that boundary lines were arbitrarily drawn resulting in disenfranchising students, and that the influence of all residents would be diminished because they would be able to vote for only one person on the Council.
Supporters of district elections countered that district elections would break the power of political groups who put together slates and actively discourage others from running, and that the proposed predominantly student population district would result in a councilmember responsive to student concerns and possibly a future successful student candidate.
In November 1986, the voters soundly rejected the council’s repeal measure. Since then, there have been two adjustments to those boundaries in response to census changes with no complaints. The 2010 census showing 9,000 more people now requires a third adjustment. Enter Measure R.
In 2011, the original boundaries were challenged as being unconstitutional because there is no predominant Asian District. The City Attorney paid an outside specialized law firm to investigate and no constitutional issue was found to exist. However this argument is still being used by some as a reason to vote for Measure R.
By May 2012, proving it was possible, six different redistricting maps, moving as few as 26 blocks, had been submitted for consideration. City staff found all six met census requirements and were in compliance with the existing charter. The council could have accepted or tweaked any one of those proposals, but it didn’t.
Instead, the Council, led by Mayor Bates and Councilmembers Capitelli and Wozniak, went along with presentations from Assembly Member Nancy Skinner and a group called The Berkeley Student District Campaign to stop redistricting now and empower the Council to draw completely new boundaries because the original boundaries intentionally discriminated against students.
Fully knowing it wouldn’t be in compliance, the Student District Campaign had submitted a map completely changing all districts, showing a total disregard of neighborhoods particularly in Districts 3, 4, 5, and 8. They portrayed this as long overdue “reform” that would result in at least two student districts designed to give students a real voice in City matters. If Measure R passes such a map may or may not be enacted. Who knows?
However, it is clear, Measure R gives the Council the power to change district boundaries any way they want, and to do it every ten years, leaving residents completely out with no way to change anything. Don’t be fooled by statements that districts have to be nearly equal in population—that’s the law in any event—or that certain factors like major streets have to be considered—that’s discretionary standard practice—or that compliant boundaries aren’t possible—that’s simply false. The Council could have selected one of the compliant maps, or drawn a compromise map of their own devising, or completed redistricting under the current rules and THEN put new boundaries on the ballot for voter approval. They didn’t.
Remember, the name of this game is POWER with the added provision that no two sitting councilmembers can end up in the same district. Vote NO on Measure R and keep the power with the people where it belongs.