Imagine a student on the City Council, adjudicating and legislating on key issues such as housing, sustainability and development. His or her mandate: Heed students’ voices, bring them to the city government and ensure that students’ needs are finally reflected in city policy. Such a dream may be much closer to reality than one might think. On Nov. 6, the city of Berkeley will decide the fate of Measure R and bring us one step closer to achieving the dream of having student voices heard on the Berkeley City Council.
Twenty-six years ago, a deal was struck to systematically and categorically deny UC Berkeley students a voice in city politics. The city of Berkeley adopted district-based council elections and left in the wake of this decision the most regressive and outdated redistricting process in the country. Instead of using redistricting as a tool to protect communities of interest, whether they are historically organized neighborhoods, socio-economic, ethnic and racial or by student-status, some Berkeley residents decided to protect their narrow political interests by enshrining in the charter the original districts that were drawn way back in 1986. While other cities can decennially redistrict to better represent their citizens, Berkeley can only make minimal changes to our 26-year-old districts.
The effect of the 1986 district lines is that students are split among four different City Council districts. We have been permanently gerrymandered out of having any real say in a city in which we make up a quarter of the population. Housing, development, crime, traffic, homelessness — these are all very real issues that affect us and our city every day, but we have been divided and silenced.
The 1986 lines are not only unfair to students — Berkeley as a whole suffers from them. It should be noted that two-thirds of current Berkeley residents were either unborn or too young to have voted for the adoption of these districts 26 years ago. We are simply not the same city as we were in 1986 — communities that were united when districts were adopted now find themselves divided as they move and grow.
Our opponents seek to distort this as a council power grab. But in reality, nobody has any power with the current lines. Both citizens making proposals and the council are currently hamstrung by the requirement to maintain the 1986 lines, and as such, nobody can draw districts that reflect and protect the communities that make up the Berkeley population. The other side additionally claims that by removing the 1986 lines, Measure R grants councilmembers the ability to gerrymander districts in their favor. However, they neglect to mention that the status quo lines are currently gerrymandered to silence students. Furthermore, the council will still be legally obligated to engage in a public process in which everyday citizens, not politicians, propose new district lines.
Measure R will change Berkeley’s charter, striking from it the rules requiring new maps to mimic nearly identically the district map from 1986 and amending it to add a requirement that districts be drawn to protect Berkeley’s communities of interest. This is a good-government measure that will protect all of Berkeley’s residents. Who’s to say what the composition of the Berkeley population will be in 50 years? Who’s to say if the population’s interests will be protected by the shape of our current districts? Who’s to say those silenced by these political machinations 26 years ago will ever get their voice back without Measure R? One thing is for sure: By splitting communities of interest into multiple districts, we diminish the voice of those who need access to our city’s political process more than most.
The ultimate promise of Measure R is a student majority district. We are a quarter of the city’s population, and yet we have not been represented on the council for more than two decades. This injustice has left key issues, such as student safety, housing and development, untouched for far too long. Measure R can change that. Its adoption will finally make a student district possible and allow us to realize the dream of having a voice at the table.
What can you do to get a student voice on the City Council? Register to vote in Berkeley at californiastudentvote.org before Oct. 22. Tell your friends about how local politics affect them. And, above all, vote yes on Measure R on Nov. 6.
Shahryar Abbasi is the ASUC external affairs vice president. Noah Efron and Michael Manset are UC Berkeley students who have worked on the redistricting issue with Abbasi.
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