After a yearlong, virulent, and expensive fight, Measure S passed in Berkeley, California–establishing a student-age supermajority city council district. Measure S was a taboo political word; it was, quite frankly, a gerrymander. It designed the City Council maps to give an electoral advantage to a specific group–students. But the story was not that simple. The question of redistricting laid bare the personal interests of prominent Berkeley officials and their efforts to remove a sitting councilman. The debate over Measure S reflects the power of gerrymandering to rectify representational imbalances but also the inherent danger of allowing politicians to draw their own districts.
In early 2014, two plans arose to redistrict Berkeley. The fundamental idea behind these plans was to create a district of such high student concentration that a student could run and win the seat, or if a non-student ran, that candidate would have to explicitly focus on representing students. Through this minority-group gerrymander, students would have a voice on the Berkeley City Council. The first map, known as the “BSDC” map, created a student supermajority in District 7 but excluded the co-ops, an iconic part of Berkeley student life housing over 1,300 students, and a known liberal base. This map was supported by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and the Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), and was approved by the Council. In response, a second map, the “USDA” map, was created, with another District 7 student supermajority including the co-ops and majorities from all other student housing. The representative from the future student-supermajority district, Kriss Worthington, supported and promoted this plan. He claimed that Councilman Gordon Wozniak and Mayor Tom Bates had personal political motives behind supporting the “BSDC” map. “Wozniak’s main focus was to make the district less progressive, and Mayor Tom Bates just wanted to get me out [of office].” With the “BSDC” map already approved, Worthington and his ally Councilman Jesse Arreguín gathered signatures to let the voters approve the map. This effort became Measure S. A ‘No’ vote rejected the plan, and a ‘Yes’ vote ratified the council’s decision.
Behind the personal battles that defined Measure S was the underlying purpose of gerrymandering to create a student supermajority district. The ‘No’ campaign tried to seize on the stigma attached to the word, running with the slogan “Stop the Gerrymander.” The ‘Yes’ campaign tried to avoid the issue altogether, branding the issue as a simple ratification of a “fair redistricting” map. Gerrymanders, for all the evil they can bring, have the capability to advance the interests of minority groups who could be underrepresented or shut out of politics altogether. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, groups that compose a sizable portion of an electorate but not a majority can be cut out of political representation.
While gerrymandering is commonly known as the way that political parties tilt the map to favor the election of their candidates (the process is explained here), the ability to advance the interests of minority groups has also justified gerrymandering since the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 2 of the VRA and Supreme Court jurisprudence on it established that if a minority group is sufficiently large enough to establish a majority in a Congressional district, the redistricted map of a state should reasonably attempt to establish this district. If this attempt was not made, it would be seen as an intentional “vote dilution” of the minority group. The Supreme Court eventually developed the Gingles Test, which used a group’s size, political cohesion, and patterns of bloc voting to enforce the law. Therefore, the process of gerrymandering is not only legal in Congressional redistricting, it’s mandatory.
Even if gerrymandering can achieve representation for minority groups, it is still subject to a fundamental conflict of interest–politicians decide their own electoral boundaries. With the power to redistrict, politicians are also given the power to undermine their opponents and strengthen themselves. This is precisely what happened in Berkeley. Councillor Worthington claimed: “If they really wanted to make a student majority district, they would’ve followed the plan which had a majority [of students] in the dorms, in the co-ops, and in the Greek [system].” In an interview in the Daily Californian, Safeena Mecklai, an organizer behind the Yes on Measure S campaign, framed it differently: “When you’re making a district of around 14,000 people to represent a community of 35,000, it’s impossible to make sure everyone is in the district,” she said. “That does not mean, however, that the needs of the community will go unheard.” She called claims of a political gerrymander “unfounded.” In the run up to the election, proponents of the Measure cited that it was “extensively tested and discussed” and called the opposition USDA map an act of “political manipulation.” Opponents raised similar complaints as Mr. Worthington, drawing attention to the “shutting out” of co-ops. Regardless of the debate that ensued, the Measure passed with 64% of the vote.
The aim to give students a more pronounced voice in Berkeley politics was a noble one. But the debate that occurred was not over the merits of the plan, but over petty personal politics. This hampered the resulting plan, and steered the debate away from policy toward a battle over the structure of Berkeley politics. There exists great power in the creation of districts. That power can bring representation to those disadvantaged by geography, but it can also fight power battles within the system. With a bias-ridden, systemically unfair electoral system that exists all over the U.S., battles for equal and accurate representation have face many obstacles.