Berkeley Election Series

While I was relieved, on the day after election day, to shunt the burden of thinking any more about the absurdities of our electoral system and the partisanship across the Red State - Blue State divide, I have a tiny confession to make: I miss the analytics, Nate Silver, and all those maps.

But actually when it comes to the actual voting part of the electoral process, I find local races much more compelling. Especially ballot measures. In Berkeley, California, where I live, two measures were particularly close and contested: Measure S, which would have banned sitting or lying on the sidewalk in commercial districts between 7 am and 10 pm, and Measure T, which would have changed the zoning rules in West Berkeley near the freeway to facilitate more intensive commercial development.

I wanted to see some electoral maps of results in our local races, but I couldn't find much. Thus over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend this past week I set out to parse and map the Berkeley election results. The first I tackled was Measure S. Next up, Measure T. I have a few more ideas after that, but I'll also take requests.

In case you are curious what I went through in order to parse these results: I started with a 748 page PDF listing mail-in ballots and poll results for each race by precinct, plus totals by district an municipality. This I ran through a pdf to Excel converter. Then I wrote a couple of Python scripts to convert the Excel workbook tables to a simple tabular format that listed the vote totals by precinct. I now have results for 88 races.... everything on our four page ballot.

It took a little digging to find the most current precinct boundaries, since there are older versions floating around out there that pop up in search results. With perseverance I found them through the Alameda County Data Sharing Initiative. Before I could join the election results to the precinct boundaries, I had to identify which precincts had been consolidated for this election. This I did manually, and only for Berkeley, by looking at which shapes failed to join to a row in the results table and looking those precincts up on the the Registrar's interactive map. Additionally, a few of the precincts had a '9' appended to the front of the ID number, which indicates that the vote tallies were very low or that only mail-in ballots came from this precinct. For my purposes, I removed the '9's.

Measure S

Measure S was a nail-biter, but in the end it failed to pass by 2,458 votes, a margin of 4.6%.
Interesting to note that the cleft in Berkeley politics on this measure fell down socio-demographic lines, splitting the precincts in Northeastern and Southeastern Berkeley from the rest. In physical space, this cleft manifests as a separation by elevation, with the hills voting for Measure S, and the flats voting against it. You can see that the precincts adjoining the commercial areas along Telegraph Ave and Shattuck Ave were not significantly more in favor of Measure S than anywhere else on the alluvial plane. You can also see that the UC Berkeley Campus voters were least in favor of Measure S, but if you click around on the precincts you will also see that these voters were the least likely to vote, and also the most likely to skip Measure S on the ballot if they did vote.

I created the map in TileMill, then uploaded it to MapBox in order to embed it here.

Measure T

Unlike Measure S, which was not strongly favored or disfavored in the precincts adjacent to the commercial districts where it was to be enforced, Measure T was most disfavored in the precinct most affected by it. It should be stressed that Measure T lost by 512 votes, just barely 1%, and the variations in levels of support across precincts were slight. On the precinct level, support ranged from 31% in the area the proposed zoning change would affect, to 61% in the hills of Southeast Berkeley.

Presidential Race in Berkeley

I got the idea for this map from Lance Knobel of Berkeleyside, who posted a similar map last week. In the presidential race, no surprise, Barack Obama won every precinct by a large margin. Mitt Romney came in second in only 62 of 101 precincts, and tied with Jill Stein of the Green Party in an additional three precincts. Jill Stein came in second in 35 precincts.

On the map below, the intensity of the shading represents the overall percentage of the vote that went to candidates other than Barack Obama, the first place finisher. Besides Jill Stein and Mitt Romney, Roseanne Barr got 1% of the vote in more than half the precincts and Gary Johnson peaked at up to 4% in a few. Click on any precinct to see the breakdown of the vote.

Rent Stabilization Board

There is something capricious about elections with low voter turnout, and all the more so for the races voters skip even as they are filling out their ballots. I plan on doing a more thorough analysis of this phenomenon, however in the rent board election, it was prevalent. Across Berkeley, there were on average just 2.12 votes for rent board candidates for every ballot cast even though voters were technically instructed to vote for four candidates.

Rent board candidates were allied with two opposing slates, the Tenants Convention Slate (TCS) and the Tenants United for For Fairness (TUFF) slate. There were some fairly contentious issues between the two slates, as well as serious allegations, grand jury reports, shifting allegiances, and advocacy by TUFF for the rights of landlords as well as tenants. Both Berkeleyside and the Berkeley Daily Planet did an excellent job of covering the lurid details. Nevertheless, it is not clear voters chose one slate over another. The name "Judy" was popular apparently. Not so the name Igor Tregub, an incumbent and the only member of the Tenant Convention Slate not to win election.

"Slate voting was definitely down this year," according to Rob Wrenn of the Berkeley Daily Planet, who has tallied the results of many Berkeley elections and shared some of his thoughts via email. "Rent control is not the hot issue it once was and more voters seem, if they bother to vote at all, to be picking and choosing from the two slates rather than casting a straight slate vote." Rob went on to explain:
Judy Shelton (TCS) came in among the top four in an amazing 91 of 100 precincts, not counting the one person precinct in southwest Berkeley. She finished first in 61 by my count. And Judy Hunt of the opposing slate finished in the top four in 52 precincts. This could never have happened, and never did happen, in the contested elections of the 1990s.
Not that Berkeley voters have ever gotten THAT excited for Rent Board elections, even when there was a tangible feeling of something-at-stake. Rob Wrenn says that back in the 1990s, "who controlled the rent board made a material difference in the lives of everyone who lived in a rent-controlled unit." That is because twenty years ago, the rent board had broader control over how much landlords could charge and over rent increases. As of the late 1990s, when the awkward terms vacancy decontrol and formula annual adjustments became a thing, landlords can charge what they can get whenever they lease to a new tenant. By Rob's accounting, "The last contested election with two full slates of 4 candidates each in a presidential year was in 1992." In that year, Berkeley voters cast a whopping 2.82 votes per ballot. In other words, then, as now, there was a fair amount of apathy involved.

Nevertheless, certain patterns persist in our Berkeley voting habits, with the hills voting differently than the alluvial plains, and the students not voting in between. I look forward to highlighting the one-voter precinct in southwest Berkeley in a future post, without compromising that lonely voter's anonymity. I would like to ask him or her -- why did you cast only one vote for Rent Board?

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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