Pondering Measure Q

If there’s one item on my November ballot that has rustled my jimmies, it has to be Santa Rosa’s Measure Q. Q proposes to take the seven-member city council, traditionally elected as at-large representatives of the entire city, and divvy them up into separate districts to represent the various neighborhoods and constituencies of various parts of town. They will continue to select a mayor from among themselves, and will continue to server four-year terms.

There are two leading arguments that I have seen put forward by the “no” camp here, both in the form of newspaper articles and push-polls I’ve received at home. Quoted from yesterday’s Press Democrat:

First of all, Measure Q takes away 85 percent of your current votes for members of the City Council. This stifles your political voice, not enhances it as proponents claim.

Second, you now have the ability to vote for all seven council members. If you vote for Measure Q (district elections), you will not be able to vote for six other council members. Consequently those six will no longer be accountable to you. This undermines your influence as a citizen, not enlarges it as the proponents claim.

The stickler in me that perks up whenever numbers come into play immediately sees this as a steaming pile of bullshit. If you reduce my ability to vote for city council members from 7 members to one member, that leaves me with a little over 14% of my number of voted-for council members. So your two arguments for me are that I only get 1/7th of the power and furthermore, in addition to that, I get my voting power reduced by 85%? That’s just repeating one argument twice. This may be nit-picking, but I don’t appreciate being spoken to with those kind of patronizing smokescreen tactics when I’m entrusted with legislative responsibility over my community at the polls.

The more substantial problem with this line of reasoning is that while a resident of Santa Rosa has normally been able to vote for candidates for all seven Council positions, the 2010 census shows my vote is competing with some 167,814 other opinions. So overall I have 7/167815ths of a say in who our representatives are. Split that up into districts as proposed by Measure Q and my voting power becomes, ostensibly, 1/23973rd. No change in the prima facia potency of my ballot. Instead of 7 extremely-watered-down votes, I get one somewhat-less-watered-down vote.

To get a little more practical, in 2008 there were eleven candidates running for four open positions. In 2010 there were seven candidates running for three open positions, some of whom also ran in 2008. In 2012 there are seven candidates contending for four open positions. It’s pretty clear that we don’t have a rough time scrounging up two or more candidates for every open position under the existing system. I consider that a good thing, your mileage may vary.

Trying to stay practical, different segments of the population vote at different rates. Elderly, educated white people are more likely to vote than younger minorities with less education. There are a thousand demographic divisions one could look at, but generally speaking the portions of the population most likely to vote, and thus more likely to see their interests reflected in the City Council Elections tend to be clustered in a section of town that can be broadly describes as the north-east quarter. Most of our Council members in recent decades hail from that area. People who live in the North-west are more likely to vote than their counterparts in the less affluent South-west, and would see their voting power decreased somewhat. Meanwhile everybody else that is already in the habit of casting a ballot will see their per-capita voting power increase.

Regarding the ancillary argument that district representation would lead to intra-Council division and strife, delaying projects that are in the whole city’s interest, it seems to me this has always been the case and likely always will be. Many cities use district representatives successfully, and there is little indication that at-large representation is of any benefit at all.

As somebody who doesn’t live in a bastion of high election participation, Measure Q appears to be in my self interest.

Full text of Measure Q (PDF)