Monday, December 17, 2012

Measure R

I have always lived in college towns. However I'm not sure that what I like about them is the students. Age 18-25 is a challenging period of self-discovery and change that lends itself to a certain myopia about the world beyond one's navel, and college at Berkeley and many other places is a geographic concentration of 18-25 year-olds in an atmosphere that tends to elevate the experience of being 18-25 to an existential reality. It isn't always fun to be around, even when you are in it.

When it comes to voting, precincts in and around the UC Berkeley campus generally have lower voter turnout than anywhere else in the city. Many students don't vote, and student voters who registered once upon a time may since have moved or decided to vote in their home districts. Nevertheless there are the vanguard who come off campus to get involved with local issues, and there are plenty of UC Berkeley alumni in city government, and every other sector of Berkeley life. Students who do vote can be a force in local elections of all types.

What is striking in the numbers when looking at election results by precinct is that in general students often fail to vote on local issues. I've chosen to illustrate this phenomenon using the results from Measure R, for reasons I'll explain below, but the pattern prevails across local races. Measure R is being touted in some very high octane rhetoric as an opportunity for students above all others, yet voters in precincts near campus who voted skipped Measure R at a rate of 22% to 55%, more frequently than voters anywhere else in the city.

On it's face, Measure R, the redistricting amendment, seems unremarkable. The wording of Measure R, which passed by a respectable margin of nearly 66%:
Shall the Charter of the City of Berkeley be amended to provide that council district redistricting shall be adopted by ordinance and to require that districts be as equal in population as feasible taking into consideration topography, geography, cohesiveness, contiguity, integrity, compactness of territory and communities interest, and have easily understood boundaries such as major traffic arteries and geographic boundaries?
It seems likely to me that most of the voters who voted on this ballot measure did so without any hint of knowledge of its import. Only those in the know were aware that the intent of the reform, in the words of my city council person, Jesse Arreguin: "We are changing the rules permanently with the charter amendment, so it provides a guarantee that students will be considered as community of interest going forward."

Arreguin's comment is with reference to the efforts of UC Berkeley student government types for a student super-majority in at least one city council district, maybe two, possibly including Arreguin's district (and mine). Measure R was forged in the fire of that struggle. It does not automatically change district boundaries to be more inclusive of students, instead it rescinds a redistricting reform written into the Berkeley City Charter in 1986 to limit how extensively districts could be redrawn in the future. Since Measure R passed, the city council can throw out those boundaries and draw entirely new ones every ten years, if it so chooses.

Does this mean the UC Berkeley ASUC are going to get their super-district(s)? I don't know. This is how things have gone so far: members of Cal student government gone to City Council meetings to share some pretty colorful invective. They have called for super-majorities as a matter of fairness, have claimed that the current boundaries "push students out", and have called the failure to grant super-majorities "disenfranchisement." The Daily Cal student newspaper claimed that to not draw boundaries to ensure that UC Berkeley students have a super-majority in their districts would violate the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, "which provides protection for voters who require assistance in voting due to race, color or membership in a language minority group."

With regard to the disenfranchisement claim, I defer to Councilmember Darryl Moore, who quipped, "Let’s not cheapen it, because people died for it." But for the most part, the Berkeley City Council is going to great pains to reassure these students that the Council is on their side.

If you read between the lines, it seems like the point of student super-majorites would be to get UC Berkeley students or other candidates who primarily represent their interests elected to the Berkeley City Council. Like State Assemblywoman and Measure R supporter Nancy Skinner, who was elected to the Berkeley City Council in 1984, right before the rules were changed.

Redistricting at every level of government is stereotypically a process of back room deals to concentrate the power of political parties and incumbents. It is called gerrymandering, and it produces funny shapes on maps. Indeed the November 2012 election, the first national election since the 2010 national census, saw a wave of gerrymandering with little or no public input. The current district boundaries are not shaped funny to preserve the status quo, however according to ASUC External Affairs Vice President Shahyar Abassi, the current City Council districts amount to gerrymandering. Either Shahyar Abassi has a flair for the dramatic, or Shahyar Abassi does not know what gerrymandering is.

I live in a neighborhood full of graduate students, as indeed I am a graduate student, just not at UC Berkeley. I think all my neighbors should read up on local issues and vote. I do not think they need a super-majority of fellow UC Berkeley students to do so. In an editorial before the election, Former Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean, an only sometimes champion of progressive politics, explain that the 1986 amendment was intended to guard against giving the city council too much power to redraw district boundaries. Regardless of the ASUC student government members' future political careers and how their current effort will play out, given how redistricting often seems to go, I think I might miss that safeguard in the future.
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