San Jose could expand to 14 council districts and change how councilmembers are elected.
The San Jose Charter Review Commission voted Monday in favor of two recommendations: one that paves the way for four additional council districts and another to implement ranked-choice voting.
Ten districts have anchored the city since it last expanded from seven districts in 1978. If voters approve the recommendations, the City Council would expand to 14 councilmembers and one mayor — significantly changing the political dynamic of the nation’s 10th largest city after more than four decades.
“Whenever there is a greater opportunity for our community to participate, whether it’s as candidates or elected officials or volunteer positions on boards like this, we should give them the opportunity to do so,” said Commissioner Jose Posadas.
The commission voted 14-7, with Commissioner Elizabeth Monley absent, to approve the recommendation. Commissioners Lan Diep, Tobin Gilman, Linda Lezotte, Frank Maitski, Barbara Marshman, Thi Tran and Yong Zhao voted no.
Advocates supporting the recommendation said the city has grown dramatically, as has its diversity.
According to data from the 2020 U.S. Census, 38.2% of the city’s population is Asian, 31.2% are Hispanic or Latino and 2.7% are Black. San Jose’s population has increased from approximately 600,000 people in the late 1970s to more than 1 million in 2020, according to city data.
Marshman recommended adding two seats to the council. But Commissioner George Sanchez suggested upping the number of additional seats by four. Sanchez argued that more seats would bring the council closer to the ratio it had more than four decades ago.
San Jose had about 63,000 residents per council district in 1980, according to a memo from the commission. At that ratio, it would take 16 council districts to accommodate San Jose’s current population of more than one million residents.
But some commissioners argued that each councilmember’s power would be diluted with every additional district.
“You get to a point where smaller districts divide communities of like interest,” Marshman said. “Each councilmember has less power. The strength of your councilmember is going to mean a lot. How many legislators do you know the names of when they’re not your legislators?”
The commission’s recommendations must go before the City Council for final approval. If approved, the city would draft a ballot measure. Voters must ultimately approve any changes to the city’s charter.
Gilman suggested a separate commission to decide the ideal number of council districts, but the idea flopped.
“I’m still trying to get my head around what’s the expected outcome here and how we get to that right number,” Gilman said.
A new way to vote
Also given a green light by the commission is a proposal to implement ranked-choice voting.
Ranked-choice voting allows residents 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.
The commission passed the ranked-choice recommendation 18-3, with Diep, Gilman and Zhao dissenting.
Advocates of ranked-choice voting point to data from cities like Oakland, which saw higher turnout among voters and greater representation of women candidates and candidates of color. A ranked-choice voting system will also eliminate the need for runoff elections, which would reduce the length of the campaign season and lower costs.
Four cities in the Bay Area—San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and San Leandro— already use ranked-choice voting to elect councilmembers.
“I’ve had a long election cycle that personally impacted my (council) race, and going through a system like ranked-choice voting I believe would create a much more equitable outcome,” said Jake Tonkel, a former District 6 candidate.
Tonkel’s 2020 race against incumbent Councilmember Dev Davis, who retained her seat, proved to be a dramatic and expensive election. The District 6 race was fraught with accusations of racism and misinformation from campaign ads that alleged Tonkel supported defunding the police and building high-rise housing in single-family neighborhoods.
The 23-member Charter Review Commission convenes every other Monday to recommend changes to the city’s charter, which acts as San Jose’s constitution.
Earlier this month, commissioners overwhelmingly moved forward with a recommendation to shift the mayoral election from midterm years to presidential years starting in 2024. According to research from Commissioner Garrick Percival, shifting the mayoral election will increase voter turnout by at least 33%, or 169,000 voters.