Should City Council Members Be Voted by District or Continue Our Current ‘At Large’ Elections?

South San Francisco, Ca      May 17, 2016  VOTE

A recent letter to South San Francisco’s Mayor Mark Addiego by South City resident Michael Harris brings up an interesting conversation: Should we continue our City council elections with representation ‘At Large’ or should we change to voting Council members by District? Also part of the conversation is the issue of term limits; currently South San Francisco does not have them as other local municipalities have voted for them. Our San Mateo Board of Supervisors are elected by district after a 2012 item on the ballot. (Please note we have ONE seat open for SMC Board of Supervisors this June election – more info HERE)

The National League of Cities explains the difference between ‘at large’ vs ‘district’ elections as follows:

Municipal Elections

The form of municipal elections varies from city to city, with three common variations: some cities elect their local representatives by at-large elections, some by district and some have both, called a mixed system.

The election system of a given city is determined by the nature of the council members’ constituency and by the presence or absence of party labels on the ballot (see Partisan vs. Non-partisan Elections). With regard to the first feature, there are two types of constituencies for city council members — at-large and district.


All at-large members are elected to serve the same constituency, which is the population of the city as a whole. At-large election proponents favor having council members elected by the entire city because:

Council members in an at-large system can be more impartial, rise above the limited perspective of a single district and concern themselves with the problems of the whole community.
Vote trading between councilmembers is minimized.
Better-qualified individuals are elected to the council because the candidate pool is larger.
However, at-large elections can weaken the representation of particular groups, especially if the group does not have a citywide base of operations or is an ethnic or racial group concentrated in a specific ward.

Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of all municipalities use at-large elections in some way. At-large elections tend to be more popular in small cities and more affluent areas.


These elections select a single council member from a corresponding geographical section of the city, called a district or ward. District election proponents favor having council members elected to represent individual wards because:

District elections give all legitimate groups, especially those with a geographic base, a better chance of being represented on the city council, especially minority groups. Several court decisions have forced jurisdictions to switch from at-large elections to district elections, and in most cases the reason was to allow more representation by specific ethnic and racial groups (see: Springfield, IL, 1987 and Dallas, TX,1990; see also amendments by the U.S. Congress to the Voting Rights Act, 1982).
District councilmembers are more sensitive to the small but important problems of their consituents, like waste disposal.
District elections may improve citizen participation because councilmen who represent a specific district may be more responsive to their constituency.
However, councils elected by district elections may experience more infighting and be less likely to prioritize the good of the city over the good of their district.

Only 14 percent of all municipalities use district elections. Cities with populations of 200,000 or more are more likely to use district elections.


Twenty-one percent of municipalities combine these two methods by electing some council members at large and some from districts. An individual councilmember will either occupy a district or an at-large seat on the council. Mixed systems are most likely to be found in parts of the South and Central jurisdictions.


Below is the letter from Mr Harris and it does bring up an interesting conversation, along with this satirical view of the process. Where do you fall on this line of thought: District or At Large? Weigh in your opinion in our comment section


Mayor Mark G. Addiego                                                                                         May 10, 2016

33 Arroyo Drive

South San Francisco, CA 94080


Subject: District Elections


I hereby request Council implement SB 493 (effective Oct 10, 2015) for District Elections for South San Francisco City Council & hold District Elections Nov 8, 2016 for 2 year terms each even year.

Residents in Buri Buri, Sierra Highlands, both Winston Manors, Sunshine Gardens have been disenfranchised for years.

There would be 3 Council Districts West of El Camino & 2 Council Districts East of El Camino.

Council member Rich Garbarino would still represent Southwood, Brentwood and Avalon Park.

Council member Karyl Matsumoto  would still represent Westborough.

A new council seat would represent Buri Buri, Sierra Highlands and both Winston Manors.

A new council seat would represent Sunshine Gardens, west of Chestnut.

The old seat would represent Parkway, Old SSF / Rocca, Sterling Terrace, Pecks Lot, Diamond Heights, Francisco Terrace and Mayfair.

We would have Representative Government instead of Tammany Hall Politics.

Districts would be similar size, not exact size.

Residents can of course petition the Legislature for redress, sponsor a Referen-dumb, or seek redress in other forums. Residents can also pray to the Rain God.

I would like to see all South City Boards & Commissions similarly elected.


Michael Harris

218 Alta Mesa Drive

South San Francisco

(650) 589 0175


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Your neighbor
Your neighbor
7 years ago

I would like to see term limits to 2 -4 8 yrs. Service elected on open citywide to promote more citizen participation.Current voter participation is dismal and exploited by incumbents. This is how the city raised our sales tax a whopping half cent for 30 hrs.because only a fraction of city voters showed up in an off year election. Is our city council looking for us or their own priorities? They’re saying the city doesn’t have enough money,lately its neighborhood street lights! Why isn’t safety a priority?