Opinion: Why S.F. seems impossible to govern, Part IV

Board of Supervisors: district versus at-large elections

One of the strangest debates in San Francisco politics is whether The City should elect its supervisors through individual districts, as is the case now, or through at-large elections, as San Francisco did for much of the 20th century. This debate has come and gone for much of the past 50 years and has never really changed.

The question of whether legislatures function better when constituted by individuals representing specific communities or through larger multi-member districts where legislators represent the entire polity is an important one. A lot of academic ink has been spilled over this, and new democracies wrestle with this question as they try to figure out what is best for their country.

The odd thing about how this debate plays out in San Francisco is that those who want at-large elections seem to ignore the fact that every state, and most certainly our Congress, is constituted through districts. There is no American legislator who represents the entire country and no state legislator anywhere in the United States who represents his or her entire state. Moreover, although many cities have toyed with at-large elections in the past, today almost every major city elects its legislature through district elections.

This alone does not mean that San Francisco should stick with district elections. But opponents of district elections argue that there is something about San Francisco that makes it uniquely unfit for district elections, and that San Francisco neighborhoods, unlike neighborhoods in most big cities, don’t need or deserve specific representation.

The modern effort to switch to district elections began in earnest in the early 1970s. And it was one of the core demands around which progressive activists, notably the Community Congress — a coalition of reformers seeking to wrest power away from downtown business and real estate leadership — organized during those years. Advocates for district elections believed the new system would lead to a more diverse Board of Supervisors, while making it possible for candidates with less money to compete in elections because they would not have to run citywide.

Advocates believed district elections would also weaken the power of downtown business and real estate interests. Opponents of district elections argued it would lead to supervisors who cared only about the district they represented, rather than the entire city.

These two views still define the debate.

In 1976, after a failed ballot initiative in 1973, the voters of San Francisco passed Proposition T and switched to district elections. The 11 districts created by Proposition T are still the basis for the districts we have today. Within days of the passage of the bill, opponents sought to overturn it, but those efforts failed.

Another intriguing proposal in the early 1970s came from then-Supervisor Dianne Feinstein, one of the few people to win election to the board handily at both the citywide and district level. Feinstein proposed reducing the number of supervisors from 11 to nine. Four would be elected at-large. The City would then be divided into five districts, each with its own supervisor.

This idea never got off the ground, but was a clever attempt to split the difference between the two groups. It was also a rare example of a politician thinking creatively about representation in San Francisco politics.

In 1977, The City elected its first Board of Supervisors based on districts since the 19th century. That board was much more diverse than any before. It included San Francisco’s first Black female, Ella Hill Hutch, its first Asian American, Gordon Lau, and its first openly gay man, Harvey Milk. Other notable members of that Board of Supervisors were Quentin Kopp, Dianne Feinstein and Dan White.

That system did not last long because in a 1980 special election, voters overturned district elections and The City went back to at-large elections for the rest of the 20th century. However in 1996, San Franciscans approved another ballot initiative to return to district elections beginning in 2000. Since that year, San Francisco has continued to have district elections.

In 2021, it is still not difficult to find San Franciscans, particularly more moderate and conservative ones, who would like to return to at-large elections. Their arguments — that district elections lead to supervisors who do not represent the interests of the entire city, that district supervisors are too focused on their district and that they are elected by a relatively small number of people — would not seem out of place in a “No on Proposition T” flyer from 1976.

Similarly, the arguments made by district election supporters — that it helps ensure diversity, that it is essential to have views from the various neighborhoods represented and that only some kinds of candidates can afford citywide campaigns — would not be out of place at a Community Congress meeting from 1975.

Both sides are right, but also both exaggerate their point a bit.

Many supervisors elected at the district level care about citywide issues and vote accordingly, but it is also indisputable that supervisors who would aim to get elected citywide would be less concerned about any given neighborhood. It is equally apparent that some neighborhoods would be neglected if they did not have district representatives. Additionally, while some district supervisors care deeply about the communities they represent and fight for their interests, others are politicians simply looking to the next election.

That is the nature of politics regardless of the electoral system.

Read the series

Part I: The city administrator

Part II: The seven citywide elected officials

Part III: Electing San Francisco’s mayors

Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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