San Francisco: a Multi-Everything City that needs a new approach to local democracy

By Steven Hill, DemocracySOS, May 10, 2023

How should urban zones structure local democracy to ensure fewer turf wars, broad participation and greater engagement of its human talent and genius?

San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, San Jose, Atlanta, San Diego, Houston, Chicago – these large metropolises are what I call “multi-everything cities.” They are multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-jazzed, multi-religious, multi-gendered, multi-partisan urban zones of impressive color and panache. Yet because of their overwhelming human complexity, incessant conflict naturally emerges over the sharing of relatively small geographic areas among such large and diverse populations.

Amidst this ever-evolving mosaic, a question inevitably arises: how should a multi-everything city structure its local democracy to ensure participation and engagement of all its human talent and genius? How should representation be designed so that no individuals and no communities of interest are left behind? How, in effect, should multi-everything cities elect their governments to ensure that the city does not tribally polarize, riving apart amidst ongoing bitterness and dysfunction?

These are not easy questions to answer. But a few observations point us in the right direction.

For example, when a city uses geographic-based representation by districts, only one side can win in each district. Will it be Latinos? Blacks? Asians? Whites? Democrats? Republicans? Independents? Nothing magnifies the urban turf wars – whether between different racial groups, or downtown vs. neighborhood interests, or progressives vs. moderates vs. conservatives, pro- vs slow growth, YIMBYs vs NIMBYs, or low tax vs education advocates – more than this “if you win, I lose” dynamic of politics played out over this winner-take-all board game.

Redistricting battles in many cities have produced corrosive bitterness as each interest group and community of interest claws for its share of a limited commodity:  political representation. Even “independent” redistricting commissions can barely dampen these pitched battles over political geography. Indeed, San Francisco’s redistricting by an independent commission resulted in a meltdown in the Spring of 2022, as ambitious leaders seeking to manipulate the process managed to set the Asian and Black and progressive and moderate communities — all of them Democrats — at each other’s electoral throats.

It wasn’t hard to do, as the process of drawing districts inevitably divides a city, rather than brings people together. That’s because the line drawers must decide which political identities are the ones that matter and deserve representation. Worse, the only political identities and preferences that can be represented, even with heroic effort, are those that are geographically clustered. Citywide perspectives or scattered communities don’t have a place at the table. Neighborhood voices ought to be heard in city politics, but many of the problems that San Francisco and other cities face today need citywide solutions: housing, education, homelessness, crime, drug abuse, fiscal stability, previously a pandemic. An unfortunate side effect of districted elections is that representatives are not always rewarded for making headway on citywide problems, but for pleasing the loudest voices in their neighborhoods.

The shortcomings of this very primitive approach to representative democracy are increasingly hard to ignore. But what if there is a better solution in which all sides, all racial groups, all constituencies and significant groupings of voters, can win their fair share of representation within San Francisco’s 49 square miles?  A “multi-everything city” needs to use a better democratic method that is not based on these toxic winner-take-all incentives which in turn are based on geographic representation. If cities based their elections on the bedrock of what is known as “proportional representation,” that would greatly reduce these kinds of turf wars in favor of full representation for all.

Proportional representation for multi-everything cities 

One method of proportional representation, known as proportional ranked choice voting (P-RCV), is a nonpartisan, candidate-based method that uses multi-seat “super districts” instead of single-seat districts. For example, in San Francisco the 11-member Board of Supervisors could be elected citywide, six seats one year and five seats two years later. To win one of those seats under proportional voting rules, a candidate would need to garner about 14% (when electing six seats) or 17% (five seats) of the citywide vote. A political constituency – think liberals, moderates, progressives, conservatives – comprising 28% of the electorate would win two seats, 42% would win three seats, and so on.

Or, the Board of Supervisors could be elected from three multi-seat super districts, each electing three or four representatives. Any candidate who earns over 20% of the vote (in a 4-seat district) or 25% (in a 3-seat district) would win a seat.

Either of these plans would result in citywide as well as neighborhood-based representation, giving San Francisco the best of both worlds. The role for voters is simple—you just rank your favorite candidates in order of preference, just like San Franciscans already do when they elect their mayor, district attorney, city attorney, district supervisors and other officials with ranked choice voting.

P-RCV has a unique and demonstrated capacity to represent both minorities and majorities, neighborhood interests and citywide interests, without the bitterly divisive process of drawing geographic district lines. Rather than presupposing which political identities should be salient and represented through districts, it invites voters to in effect “district themselves” by forming an electoral coalition with like-minded people across the city. Voters win representation based on not only where they live but also what they think, and have more electoral choices which energize voters.

And if different issues or identities become more salient in the next election, new coalitions can arise fluidly, rather than being stymied by district lines that were nailed down years before like an inflexible jigsaw puzzle during a flawed redistricting process. Through their rankings, voters would be liberated to express their complex racial-ethnic and political identities that so many San Franciscans align with today. A Black conservative preacher, a gay Latino, an Asian American businesswoman or white nurse, may not fit neatly into the usual categories of race, class or gender.

The ranked ballots free up voters to pick their favorite candidates without worrying that spoiler candidates and split votes might distort the election results. And candidates would not need to run citywide campaigns but instead could focus on specific neighborhoods or communities where their support is strongest. Candidates wouldn’t need to depend on deep-pocketed donors to run citywide campaigns.

The truth is, everyone deserves representation. But district elections and it’s primitive winner-take-all inflexibility can never deliver that. Clearly as our multi-everything cities continue to “rainbowize,” proportional voting promises authentic representation to more individuals and constituencies, as well as the best chance to realize a colorful tapestry that both respects differences and knits them together into a more unified whole.

Proportional voting for San Francisco’s school board elections 

In San Francisco, other elections where it makes sense to use proportional voting are the school board and the community college board. Both are currently elected “at-large,” i.e. citywide, and historically-speaking a successful candidate for a school board seat must win support from approximately 40% to 50% of voters spread all over the city. It takes a lot of campaign spending to win that kind of election. But with P-RCV, a candidate would need support from 20% to 25% of voters. This not only would open up school board elections to a broader range of viewpoints, but candidates wouldn’t need to depend on wealthy donors to run citywide but instead could focus on specific neighborhoods and communities where their support is strongest.

Nearly 200 jurisdictions across the US have adopted some form of proportional voting, usually to resolve voting rights disputes over minority representation. Recently Portland, OR empowered a multi-racial charter commission, which voted 17-3 to allow voters to decide in November 2022 on a charter amendment to implement proportional ranked choice voting to elect its city council. Fifty-eight percent of Portlanders voted in favor of this charter amendment, and the “Rose City” will begin using it in November 2024.

(Watch this short video to see how Proportional Ranked Choice Voting works, including how voters vote, how the ballots are counted and why it’s the fairest method to ensure broad representation and competitive elections)

Two more democratic vehicles for people’s empowerment 

Beyond using proportional voting to elect San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors and school board, there are two other innovations in local democracy and empowerment that would nicely complement proportional RCV.

People’s assemblies. The first is known as a “people’s assembly,” which is a new form of participatory democracy that allows everyday people to directly propose important policy decisions at a city, state or national level. A people’s assembly is composed of residents who have been randomly selected — much like a jury pool — in an attempt to reflect in miniature the diverse demographics of a city or a state. The role of this “deliberative democracy” forum is to investigate a specific societal problem that has proven to be too difficult for the usual partisans to set aside differences long enough to craft a solution.

Numerous use cases show how randomly selected participants often check their own partisan views at the door, free of the personal financial interest or career considerations that often infect ambitious politicians. For a period of several months, the participants deliberate over the chosen issue with the assistance of professional staff, hearing the pros and cons from experts as well as the public via open hearings. The participants become experts themselves, and deliver a final report that offers solutions to the elected authorities for consideration, who then must decide whether to vote them up or down. The proposals usually are treated seriously by the politicians, since they are boosted by the immense credibility of the nonpartisanship and authenticity of the process.

Successful examples of this form of deliberative democracy abound. In post-Katrina New Orleans, 4000 people, including the diaspora spread across twenty-one cities, were convened simultaneously to give input into how to spend scarce rebuilding dollars.  Following the tragedy of the September 11 attacks, officials in Lower Manhattan used various deliberative democracy sessions to break a policy deadlock by involving thousands of New Yorkers in the design and redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. In a number of states, citizen consultation has been applied in a range of forums involving dozens to hundreds to thousands of people to advance solutions to significant and contentious issues such as health care, climate change, tax reform, housing, political reform and constitutional issues, regional development and education. Says Dr Steven Rosell, a deliberative democracy practitioner from California-based Viewpoint Learning, “Many people enter these events with strongly held political beliefs, but usually they are far more interested in finding workable solutions than in adhering to a particular ideology. As a result participants’ conclusions often have a common-sense, practical quality.”

Recently Paris became the first major city to permanently empanel a standing people’s assembly consisting of 100 randomly selected residents of the city who are a reflection of the Parisian population according to gender, age, place of residence and education. The aim of the Citizens’ Assembly is to “get Parisians to really participate in political decision-making in the capital,” according to its proponents.

San Francisco could empanel a people’s assembly to propose innovative solutions to intractable problems such as housing and homelessness, and rampant drug abuse and death on our streets. At this link, you can find out more information about people’s assemblies, how they work, and where they have been used.

Neighborhood councils. Another vehicle to empower everyday people has been neighborhood councils, whose purpose is to promote local participation in government.  Neighborhood councils are also meant to augment representative democracy, comprising a splendid adjunct to elected officeholders. The councils serve as a point of contact between the main government and the city’s residents through functions such as publishing community newsletters to communicate civic and political issues to the community, making recommendations to the citywide government on the community’s needs and its views on governmental laws, policies and issues, and direct participation in the management of neighborhood projects and facilities.

Neighborhood councils advocate at City Hall for their urban zones on important issues like development, housing, homelessness, climate change, public transportation, emergency preparedness and more. They are advisory, but some have proposed that neighborhood councils should be empowered to propose legislation to the city council, which then must decide to pass or reject the legislation. Los Angeles has one of the best known and longest serving examples of neighborhood councils, and you can find out more about them at this link.

A fresh start is needed, it’s time to hit reset. Rather than continuing this bitter winner-take-all clash over “if I win, you lose” incentives, multi-everything cities should embrace the Golden Rule of Representation: “Give unto others the representation you would have them give unto you.” Proportional ranked choice voting, people’s assemblies and neighborhood councils would work well together as a holistic, comprehensive approach toward weaving an exciting and innovative foundation for local representative government in this rapidly-evolving 21st century.

Steven Hill @StevenHill1776

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