Ranked-choice voting in San Jose is dead and a proposal to expand the number of council districts is delayed.
The two ideas were the most substantial recommendations made by the citizen-led Charter Review Commission that spent about a year studying how to make San Jose’s governing system more equitable, accessible and effective.
The City Council reviewed 15 recommendations in a special meeting Monday to decide which proposals to put before voters in November, which to study further and which to reject altogether. Officials ultimately decided to put five recommendations focused on inclusion and accountability on the ballot for later this year. The City Council also rejected three recommendations—to change how the city manager is hired, establish future Charter Review Commissions every decade and establish regular department-level audits.
Only three councilmembers—David Cohen, Sergio Jimenez and Raul Peralez—supported bringing ranked-choice voting before residents to consider at the polls. Cohen suggested reconsidering it in 2024 to allow for more conversation, but it was still rejected.
Ranked-choice voting allows voters to select their first, second and third choices for elected officials. If a resident’s first choice is eliminated from the race, their vote shifts to their second choice. The process continues until a single candidate garners a majority of votes.
“Having all the candidates on the ballot in the general election when voter turnout is the highest provides the most input that the voters can give as to who their preferences are,” Cohen said, pointing to several studies highlighting how representation of female candidates—particularly women of color—increased since adoption in Bay Area cities such as Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco.
Proponents also say a ranked-choice voting system eliminates the need for runoff elections and reduces election costs—saving the city at least $3 million, according to City Clerk Toni Taber.
However, opponents worry it could result in a candidate winning without a majority. Some also point to potential collusion between candidates. For example, in the 2018 San Francisco mayoral race, two candidates issued ads to vote for both of them to ensure the third candidate did not win.
Councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco and Maya Esparza said ranked-choice voting is detrimental to disenfranchised communities because it complicates the voting process.
“Simplicity is the name of the game,” Carrasco said.
Expanding council districts
Councilmembers did not spend much time considering expanding council districts from 10 to 14 and agreed it would be better discussed in 2025. This would give the council time to plan how to align expansion with the redistricting process following the 2030 census.
Proponents like Cohen and Jimenez said expanding from 10 to 14 districts would create better representation in San Jose. The 10 council districts were implemented in 1978 and since then San Jose’s population has more than doubled, with the number of residents per district jumping from 60,000 to over 100,000.
“This is a conversation worth having in the interests of ensuring council offices can best serve their residents,” Cohen and Jimenez wrote in a memo. “But we have yet to revisit the question of district size and appropriate resident-to-district ratio.”
Opponents said 14 is an arbitrary number, and more study is needed to find the right balance between smaller districts and a functional City Council.
Huy Tran, who served on the Charter Review Commission, said it’s not specifically about the number, but about representation. He compared it to classroom sizes.
“A teacher can be more effective with 20 to 25 students than they can be with 40 to 45,” Tran told San José Spotlight. “The same can be said with councilmembers, especially when you talk about a city like San Jose, which has so many different neighborhoods and so many different enclaves.”
Tran said the commission didn’t specify which districts should change, but noted the 2030 redistricting process would likely be the best time to make those changes. San Jose recently changed its district boundaries after the 2020 census was completed to make sure the districts fairly reflected population changes.
What is going before voters?
While the two substantial proposals did not move forward, five recommendations focused on inclusion and accountability will come before San Jose voters in November.
Those recommendations include adding a native land acknowledgement to the city charter recognizing local tribes; using gender-inclusive language in city documents; establishing equity values, standards and assessments; addressing equity and inclusion in city programming and budgeting; and reforming boards and commissions to allow non-citizens to serve on boards and to provide stipends.
The majority of the council approved those recommendations, with Councilmembers Matt Mahan and Dev Davis in opposition. Mayor Sam Liccardo was absent.
Davis and Mahan did not support the item because they wanted more analysis before putting it to voters.
“We have started to have these conversations, but putting it on the ballot already, without knowing what that means or (its impacts), is really concerning to me,” Davis said.
The council will discuss these items further to determine whether to split them into different measures, further define what these objectives are and finalize language for the November ballot.
The Charter Review Commission was created in summer 2020 to study how to improve San Jose’s governing system and city services, after Liccardo suggested moving to a strong-mayor system—an idea the commission ultimately rejected.
The commission also spent a significant amount of time creating recommendations to improve policing, which will be part of a future discussion. Recommendations include creating a police commission, an independent investigation department and an Office of the Inspector General, which would have more power than the city’s independent police auditor.
The commission’s recommendation to move mayoral elections to the presidential cycle will come before voters in June.
Other recommendations from the Charter Review Commission focus on combating institutional and structural inequity, creating a Climate Action Commission and further exploring the Community Opportunity to Purchase Act and other home-ownership opportunities.
The City Council decided not to formally move those recommendations forward on Monday because those changes do not require a charter amendment. Many of those ideas are also already part of the city’s priorities, according to city officials.
Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.