The five supervisors in office unanimously agreed to let the electorate have their say, even though a majority of the board opposes district elections. Two years ago the board chose, on a 4-1 vote, to disregard a Charter Review Commission's 14-2 recommendation to let the voters decide the issue. Then supervisor Rich Gordon cast the dissenting vote.
San Mateo is the only county in the state that continues to hold onto the at-large election model, which requires candidates to live in their district but run county-wide. Over the years, sitting supervisors often retired early, opening the door for a new member to be appointed and then run in the next election as a incumbent, a huge advantage.
In recent supervisorial elections, challengers have faired poorly against incumbents or well-known candidates, such as former sheriff Don Horsley, who defeated Coastside challenger April Vargas in a runoff. A more recent example is the wide margin of victory (39 percent to 21 percent) of longtime chief elections officer and assessor-county clerk-recorder Warren Slocum over Redwood City School District board member Shelley Masur in a seven-person race for supervisor. Now Mr. Slocum, a Redwood City resident, has to be given the edge to win the seat in a runoff with Ms. Masur in November. The prize is the District 4 seat now held by termed-out supervisor Rose Jacobs Gibson of East Palo Alto.
It would be much easier for candidates who are well-known in their district but not county-wide to mount a successful — and affordable — campaign. Warren Slocum has self-funded much of his campaign, but might not need to spend all of the $100,000-plus that he has raised. Ms. Masur will have to spend that amount or more to reach out to voters all over the county if she hopes to close the gap.
Another significant drawback of county-wide campaigns is the difficulty of minority candidates to gain enough traction to get elected. It is likely that supervisors agreed to allow voters to decide on the matter in response to a lawsuit filed last year that claims the at-large system discriminates against minorities. Hispanics and Asians each represent about 25 percent of the county's population, but no Asian and only one Hispanic, Ruben Barrales in 1992, has been elected to the board.
The supervisors' race that will be decided in November is a perfect example of how voting by district could have given local voters a much more lively campaign. Mr. Slocum's edge would have been diminished and the stock of Menlo Park Mayor Kirsten Keith and City Council member Andy Cohen would have gone up, as well as that of Ms. Masur and two candidates from East Palo Alto. All the candidates were reasonably well known in the district and could have focused their appeals directly to local voters.
But regardless of how sensible voting-by-district looks on paper, it has been 32 years since voters last turned down the idea in 1980 and before that in 1978. Board president Adrienne Tissier, who voted to retain county-wide elections in 2010, told a reporter that while she continues to believe at-large voting is preferable, she wants to look at the issue again "to let the electorate determine whether or not it's the right decision."
In our view, the South County and the Coastside would be much better served by district elections, which would bring supervisors into much sharper focus with local voters. Coastside residents often complain that their region has rarely, if ever, had adequate representation on the board. But supporters of district elections may again have an uphill battle, since a change in the law will have to be approved by — you guessed it — a countywide vote!