The debate over district or at-large elections has now persisted for half a century. It’s been presented as a binary choice, which means we have been ignoring potentially more effective ways to construct The City’s legislature.
Let’s backtrack. The first question for supporters of either approach should be: What kind of at-large or district elections do you want?
Supporters of at-large elections generally call for a return to the old system of allowing voters to choose up to five or six candidates, depending on the number of open seats, with the top five or six candidates winning. But there are other ways to elect at-large representatives. One might be a more proportional system where candidates would form into slates of up to six or five people, with seats awarded based on the proportion of votes each slate received.
In this system, which would lead to more voices being represented on the Board, a slate that received only 20% of the vote would still have at least one representative, whereas a candidate with the same percentage of the vote in an at-large election would probably not make it onto the Board. The proportional system also would make it impossible for five or six people, supported by the same 30%, to win all the seats. There are also numerous ways to use variations of rank choice or approval voting that help achieve a diverse and representative at-large board.
San Francisco has had 11 supervisors since 1934, yet there is nothing sacred about this number. It is possible that The City would be better served by more, or perhaps fewer, supervisors regardless of how they are elected.
Currently, San Francisco has one supervisor for roughly every 80,000 voters. That means the districts here are much smaller than in the country’s two largest cities. New York has about 170,000 people per district and Los Angeles 270,000 or so. However, Chicago’s wards only have about 53,000 people each; that proportion is much closer to the roughly 60,000 people each supervisor represented when The City had its first modern district elections in 1977. Indianapolis, which has almost exactly the same population as San Francisco, has 25 people on its city council.
Decreasing the number of supervisors seems like a bad idea. A Board made up of only five or seven members would be overwhelmed by the amount of work required to govern The City and would be a less effective check on the mayor. This might make each individual supervisor more visible because he or she would represent a bigger swath of the City. But the overall effect of fewer supervisors, each with too much work to do, would make the mayor and the bureaucracy more powerful.
Expanding the Board of Supervisors, regardless of whether members were elected citywide, at the district level, or in some combination, is a much more worthwhile idea.
If San Francisco had a ratio of residents to legislators more like Chicago’s, the Board would have 17 members. That would allow for more and larger committees, for supervisors to focus their work on specific issues and, if they were elected at the district level, for more diversity and a closer relationship between citizens and their representatives.
A Board with 17 members may seem like a lot, but it is not unprecedented. For most of the first third of the 20th century, San Francisco had an 18-member Board of Supervisors.
Expanding the size of the Board could be constituted from either district or at-large elections. It could also be an opportunity to create a hybrid similar in concept to the one Dianne Feinstein proposed almost 50 years ago. For example, a 17-member board could keep the current 11 district supervisors in place and add six at-large supervisors. This would be a 21st-century version of Feinstein’s idea, of nine members — four at-large and five from districts — but with an expanded, rather than reduced, number of supervisors.
Another approach might be to keep district supervisors, but elect two members from every district in the same election. This would ensure that more people in each district are represented by their supervisor, while freeing up all supervisors to spend more time on citywide issues.
In general, the discourse around at-large and district elections has become just another component of ongoing political battles: downtown versus the neighborhoods, moderates versus progressives. The discourse needs to be raised.
Because if we are really interested in crafting a city government that works for all people, we should be amenable to a range of ideas, particularly ones that are innovative and not simply efforts to elevate one political position or another.
This means being open to changing the number of supervisors, using different electoral systems and exploring hybrid district-at-large systems or multi-member districts, in order to craft a system that offers representation to all San Franciscans while ensuring that the city legislature is equipped to wrestle with citywide ideas.
Alternatively, we can rehash arguments from half a century ago and conceal ideological agendas behind hackneyed proclamations about democracy and fairness while not combating the problems The City faces.
Read the series
Part I: The city administrator
Part II: The seven citywide elected officials
Part III: Electing San Francisco’s mayor
Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.