Redistricting, in Berkeley as in the Nation, Disenfranchises Voters

By Becky O'Malley
Friday September 20, 2013 - 01:46:00 PM

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that your vote counts for less and less. On the national level, clever Republicans (no, not an oxymoron, unfortunately) have gained control of state legislatures in poorly attended off-year elections and have used their power to re-draw national congressional districts for their own benefit. Elizabeth Drew had an excellent piece explaining how this worked in the last New York Review. Here’s the crux of the strategy as she describes it:

“Among other things, [the Republicans] made the House of Representatives unrepresentative. In 2012 Democrats won more than 1.7 million more votes for the House than the Republicans did, but they picked up only eight seats. (This was the largest discrepancy between votes and the division of House seats since 1950.)

“Thus, while Obama won 51.1 percent of the popular vote in 2012, as a result of the redistricting following 2010 the Republican House majority represents 47.5 percent as opposed to 48.8 percent for the Democrats, or a minority of the voters for the House in 2012. Take the example of the Ohio election: Obama won the state with 51 percent of the vote, but because of redistricting, its House delegation is 75 percent Republican and 25 percent Democratic.”
What many Berkeley voters probably don’t realize is that a similar redistricting process is now going on here. It’s a lot easier, too, because the current Council majority (socially liberal, but economically pro-wealth, funded mainly by commercial property owners and developers) is vested by the city charter with the right to control how their own district lines are drawn. Not surprisingly, they’re doing their damnedest to create a district map that ensures that their own seats (some incumbents have been in office for decades) are not at risk. They can effectively pick and choose what kinds of voters are in their districts. 

And just to make the status quo really secure, the charter also provides that no district can be drawn in such a way as to exclude an incumbent. This provision also benefits the two or three genuinely progressive incumbents, making them reluctant to rock the boat too much. 

There’s a new threat to two of the progressives now. Kriss Worthington and Jesse Arreguin, both consistently intelligent and well-informed, have been elected in districts where there’s a sizeable student vote—70% in Worthington’s District 7, he says. 

But now a red herring has been dragged across the path. A possibly innumerate faction of UC Berkeley student government activists has been lobbying for the creation of a district which is almost all (+85%) students. The problem with this strategy is that if all the students were lumped together in one district, they would go from being the controlling percentage in two or more districts to dominating just one with a supermajority. 

Needless to say, the clever Council majority (again, unfortunately not a complete oxymoron) has welcomed this proposal with open arms. They recognize that it would be much easier for their developer clients to seduce unsophisticated students with expensive mass mailings and beer parties if only one district were at risk. 

Not all students are alike, either. Traditionally the core southeastern campus area has been the stamping ground of younger students and those less interested in the world outside school. That’s the location of the big dorms, both UC-owned and private, as well as fraternities and sororities. 

Graduate students and undergraduates who are involved in the larger civic scene are more likely to look for apartments and houses to rent which are farther from campus and usually less expensive, not so proximate to student body activities. These students have traditionally provided a healthy leavening in areas of the city such as Northwest Berkeley which might otherwise be dominated by homogeneous homeowners. If most student voters were jammed into a single central campus district, their votes would count for less. 

The Council has until the end of this year to finish the job. They’ve been stretching it out as long as possible, but some decision has to be made by November 12, in order to get a finally proposed ordinance on the Council agenda in time to vote on it as prescribed in the city charter. Just before the Council started their long summer vacation, they endorsed a district-line map submitted by one student group, the Berkeley Student District Campaign (BSDC). 

Now, however, another student committee, the United Student District Amendment group (USDA), which works closely with Councilmember Worthington, has put forward an alternative. Proponents claim that their version would increase student representation in the new student district from 86% to 90%. 

Unspoken but even more important is the fact that the added students would come from the Northside co-ops and International House, which traditionally house the most progressive and independent elements among students housed on or near campus, as well as being more economically and ethnically diverse. These voters would be subtracted from the city’s wealthiest areas, Districts 6 and 8, where progressives have little chance of defeating entrenched conservative incumbents. In District 7 their votes would at least contribute toward electing a progressive student councilmember. 

At their September 10 meeting, the Council voted to continue considering both maps for a while, but it seems likely that the BSDC version will eventually be adopted. If this happens, there will probably be some sort of a ballot challenge, since the majority of city voters are still in the progressive camp, despite the City Charter’s gerrymandering provisions. 

This could take the form of a referendum to overturn the new district map, or a more interesting outcome would be a ballot initiative to reform the charter by amending it. Reform amendments might include adding a couple of at-large councilmembers to the current geographically-based districts. District elections were originally created by an initiative whose proponents hoped to make sure that councilmembers paid attention to neighborhood issues, but the result seems to be that city-wide problems get short shrift. Adding more at-large votes (currently only the mayor is elected city-wide) might create a better, more democratic balance on the Council.