Jack Semancik is a political science junior and Mustang News opinion columnist. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.
“I’m sorry sir, you’re not eligible to vote in the municipal elections.”
That was the response my sophomore-self received after calling to ask about why city council candidates had not appeared on my Nov. 6, 2018 ballot.
I was living in Poly Canyon Village at the time, and, despite the area’s sociophobic reputation, I was seeking to get involved in city politics. But alas, it was not destined to happen then.
I was reminded of this event when I heard the City of San Luis Obispo was facing a lawsuit for its at-large electoral system, a system in which a candidate (or multiple candidates, in the case of San Luis Obispo’s City Council) can be elected from a single voting district. In the case of San Luis Obispo, this district comprises the city – aside from Cal Poly.
The problems created by at-large voting systems are all fairly intuitive. It’s a pretty straight-forward idea — that when you create a single voting block for a city, you exaggerate the voting power of the majority group across the whole of that district. If you want minority interests represented, then you need to create districts that accurately represent those groups within the city. One group not represented at all within San Luis Obispo’s city council is composed of those who live on Cal Poly’s campus.
Despite living around the official city limits of San Luis Obispo – and being bound by the laws of the city – those who live on Cal Poly’s campus are ineligible to vote in municipal elections, leaving them on the outskirts of a city that will never represent them.
According to a 2014 report on the economic impacts of Cal Poly, Cal Poly students accounted for about $213.95 million in spending over fiscal year 2012-2013 (40 percent of students’ expenditures was rent), with approximately $22.4 million coming from those living on campus. For a segment of the San Luis Obispo population that directly generates this much revenue for San Luis Obispo’s economy, one would think those living on campus would be able to have a say in the community to which they, even financially, contribute so much.
Mayor Heidi Harmon has said she strives to make student voices “not only heard, but powerful instruments of change.” Maybe this would be more believable if they were accountable to the students as well. However, the reverse seems to be the case; in the very same letter, Harmon lauded her own attempts to pressure Cal Poly into providing more on-campus housing, weakening student representation in the municipal electorate.
Do I think this represents a coordinated effort on the part of City Council to weaken the impact of students on the electorate? Perhaps not — I hope, at least, that our progressive mayor truly does value the input of students — but these efforts, intentional or not, have led to a city council that becomes less representative of its underlying community with each election.
Student or not, all residents of San Luis Obispo deserve to have responsive, local leadership on their city council. While I may not even disagree with many of the policies of the city council, I still see it as failing to properly represent the community of San Luis Obispo by distorting the impact of the majority group on the electorate and by excluding on-campus students from the municipal electoral process.
City Attorney Christine Dietrick expressed reluctance toward transitioning the city to district elections.
“We believe this a [sic] fundamentally flawed proposal to try to remedy an issue that doesn’t exist in our community,” Dietrick said.
While I fundamentally disagree with Dietrick’s statement, the alternatives that have been proposed by City Hall have been promising. A Single Transferable Vote electoral system — in which votes for a candidate who does not reach an outright majority in the election are transferred to the voters’ next choice — would eliminate many of the problems faced under our current at-large election process by allowing people to vote for preferred candidates without having to strategically vote for the candidates most likely to win the election.
Single Transferable Voting Systems, however, do not remedy the lack of representation for on-campus students. For that, our city will need to expand the voting districts — at-large or not — to include the whole of our San Luis Obispo community. Only when on-campus students are allowed into the electoral process to which they are impacted by will our city begin to better represent the totality of our community.
In the words of Mayor Harmon in her 2018 Letter to Mustang News, “Our democracy is only truly a democracy if everyone participates.”