Time to shake up voting in Marin


With San Rafael seemingly on the edge of enacting council districts [1], now is a good time to reassess how elections work in Marin. Districts are a good step, but other reforms – especially ranked-choice voting – would make the process more equitable in every election.

Districts means diversity

San Rafael is moving quickly towards districts in part because of the threat of a civil rights lawsuit by the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project [2]. They rightly argue that San Rafael’s Hispanic population is underrepresented in government because of the city elects its councilmembers in at-large elections. In these, the top vote-getters get the seats available (which could be 1, 2, or 3 seats, depending on the year). Because the elections are at-large, however, the majority population of San Rafael, which happens to be white, can out-vote the Hispanic population. And, because every councilmember needs to appeal to the whole city, there is a strong incentive to only appeal to those white voters.

Districts means candidates need to appeal to more parochial interests. A candidate needs to campaign in their neighborhood, among their friends, and to argue that they will fight for their district’s interests. In San Rafael, this would probably mean one or two councilmembers in Terra Linda, one or two in the Canal, and one or two in Gerstle Park, Downtown, and Sunnyside, each of which would be fighting for whatever they think is best for their district.

This kind of parochialism is one reason at-large districts were enacted in the Progressive era of the early 20th Century to begin with. Rather than look after one area and to turn it into a patronage game, politicians would need to look after the whole city.

But activists and the courts have found that this hinders representation for the reasons outlined above. Santa Rosa, Seattle, and myriad cities in Southern California have opted for district elections instead. San Rafael may soon follow suit. This is a good thing, something I’ve argued for in the past [2], and I hope the city alongside others in the county takes it up.

Ranked-choice voting

An innovation from Oakland should also be considered: ranked choice voting. This allows someone to say who their first, second, third, etc. choice is for a seat. If their first choice loses, then their vote gets transferred to the second choice. It’s similar to runoffs, but rather than just the top two going into a second round, all candidates have a fair shake and only one election is needed.

Today, if there is a candidate running for, say, county supervisor, he or she could win with just a plurality of votes, maybe just 25 percent if there are enough challengers. That ensures that for 75 percent of the voters, they didn’t get the candidate they wanted. Boo.

In elections with more than one seat open, the equivalent of a clear majority win is different. For 2 open seats, it’s 33 percent; for 3 seats, it’s 25 percent. (A similar system, single transferable vote [4], has a 50 percent threshold for 2 seats and 33 percent for 3 seats.) Candidates in these elections, however, very often don’t reach that threshold. In this past election, nobody hit that threshold in 3 out of the 7 competitive council races – Fairfax, Sausalito, and Marin City. In 2015, this happened in 7 out of the 21 competitive races. It is remarkably common, and is something Marin can and should do something to fix.

There are good rundowns of ranked-choice voting (here’s an option for readers [5], here’s an option for people who like YouTube instead [6]), but in Oakland, at least, it meant a much more civil campaign for mayor in its first election cycle. There, the candidates were fighting to not get in last place, and there was value in being the second or even third choice of voters.

In San Rafael, this would go a long way to ensuring that person who holds office will be the person with the broadest support, not merely the one who has the most activated constituency. In other towns, it would mean that the 2 or 3 candidates who get on the council are similarly representative of the town’s views. This is most helpful in closely fought elections or when there is just one seat available and many good choices vying for it.

Rolling out reform county-wide

Other elected boards and councils in Marin could benefit from districts, but not all. Novato should certainly have districts: San Marin, Hamilton, and Downtown are all very different places with different needs. The Marin Municipal Water District, which covers all of central and southern Marin, is diverse enough and large enough to accommodate districts. Small towns, like Ross, are too small and homogenous to find much value in districts. Others, like San Anselmo, might benefit from electing two or three seats by district and the rest at-large. All county elections would benefit from ranked-choice voting.

An ideal system might be that towns that reach a population of 10,000 create 2 districts of at least 5,000 residents each and elect the other seats at-large. Once a town hits 15,000, it would create a third district, 20,000 a fourth, and 25,000 a fifth. Once a town hits 60,000 residents, perhaps a sixth and seventh district could be created, to ensure fair representation for all the town’s communities. For county-wide boards, such as for College of Marin, board members would be elected by the same districts as the county supervisors.

But these are other avenues of reform. For the moment, San Rafael should choose councils and go even one step further to ranked-choice voting. People in different neighborhoods think differently about issues like development, pensions, crime, and homelessness, and those viewpoints deserve to be heard from the council dais.

Works Cited

[1] Kerri Brenner, "Live updates: San Rafael elections study session," Marin Independent Journal, November 19, 2017, sec. News.

[2] “San Rafael Should Take the Initiative,” Marin Independent Journal, November 12, 2017, sec. Opinion.

[3] David Edmondson, “Is It Time for San Rafael Council Districts?,” The Greater Marin (blog), August 28, 2012.

[4] CGP Grey, Single Transferable Vote, Politics in the Animal Kingdom, 2014.

[5] FairVote.org, “Multi-Winner Ranked Choice Voting,” FairVote, accessed November 19, 2017.

[6] CGP Grey, The Alternative Vote Explained, Politics in the Animal Kingdom, 2011.