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City Charter

California law defines two types of cities.  A city can incorporate under the state’s General Law, or it can adopt a Charter.  A Charter City has significantly more flexibility in how it operates.  It can adopt certain types of taxes that are not available under general law, such as setting a real estate transfer tax for very large (typically corporate) transactions.

One big advantage of chartering, in my view, is the possibility to adopt a better election system.  Recent changes in state law have pushed most jurisdictions to adopt districts.  If you followed the districting process in San Bruno at all, you know that it is more or less impossible to draw districts of equal population, without to some degree breaking up neighborhoods.

In the case of our own district, you’d think that the Forest Lane Park neighborhood has more in common with the folks in downtown, than it does with Mills Park and Huntington Park, but the population math dictated that a line had to cut through somewhere.

There’s a concept called proportional representation in which instead of slicing the electorate into districts and then electing one person from each district, all candidates run city-wide and winners are selected based on the proportion of voters supporting each candidate.

The law that’s driving cities to adopt districts, the California Voting Rights Act, is trying to make sure that you don’t end up with a minority neighborhood that can’t ever elect anyone to Council.  The thing is, districts only work to solve this representation problem, to the extent that a minority can be gerrymandered into a district.  If you have a group that’s around 25% of the population (and hence would intuitively merit one member of a four-member Council), but they’re dispersed across town, districts are never going to help them -- they’re still only 25% in each district.

Tabulating the votes in a proportional system requires a little bit of math -- but depending what style of ballot you use, it’s not so bad.  The method I favor, Proportional Approval, typically could be worked out literally on the back of an envelope, once you have the vote tallies.  The proportional system allows you to campaign based on building strong support in one geographic area.  It just doesn’t force you to.  It gives the benefits of districts, without the drawbacks.

Proportional representation is quite common in Europe, and it’s used to elect the Australian Senate.  Closer to home, Albany, CA, recently adopted a version.

The version I favor uses a second innovation, Approval Voting.  On an Approval ballot, every candidate is in essence treated like a ballot proposition.  “Do you like Bob Smith? Y/N”  You vote in favor of as many candidates as you like, and against as many as you dislike.  This style of voting should discourage negative campaigning, and encourage more coalition-building and discussion of the actual issues.  Securing a victory requires winning cross-over votes from people whose first-choice is a candidate that’s similar to you.  Running nasty, dishonest ads will tend to alienate those “ideological neighbors”.

Approval ballots have been adopted in Fargo, ND and Saint Louis, MO.  Seattle has a ballot measure this year.  Proportional Approval is the system recommended by the Center for Election Science, a non-partisan think-tank that studies how different election systems work, and how they can build or erode voters’ confidence that they will be represented properly.

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Auros Harman for San Bruno Council
District 4 2022 FPPC # 1449270
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