Building A Better Democracy, One Pedal Stroke at a Time

Posted by Peggy da Silva on December 22, 2017

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The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (founded in the 1970’s) has a long history of member-led activism, pushing hard for rights and access for bicyclists. The coalition started before there were ever any Pedestrian/Bicycle Coordinators in city government. Mixing young and old, aggressive bike messenger and slower moving mom-with-trailer, it was “all hands on deck” in the early years. When the Board of Directors’ elections were held, they were healthy contests, and SFBC was a model of participatory democracy in action. Through SFBC’s advocacy and grassroots efforts, the membership grew to 10,000 people.

However, recently, many members came to feel that their ideas and voices were not adequately heard -- nor spread to the wider community – by the systems set up by the SFBC over the past few years. Our SFBC was not as effective as it could be, with an insular Board and uncontested elections for a Board-approved slate, using a plurality winner-take-all election method.

The drift away from a member-driven coalition reached a climax in 2015, when the Board tried to remove members’ voting rights. Many members were upset, and some very astute people filed a lawsuit against the change and mounted a successful campaign to elect pro-democracy members to the Board. Two won, a small minority, but a toe-hold out of 15 board members.

In January 2016, several of us got together to strategize: how to return the SFBC to its pro-democracy, member-driven roots? We were blocked by some leadership and staff from most of the organization’s communication channels, but we recruited wherever we could. We became a committee:  Members for More Representative Elections (MMRE).

Because I have been a long-time supporter of Fair Vote, I contacted the national office for ideas. They put us in touch with David Cary, who led us to an understanding of ranked choice voting (RCV) and how it could significantly improve our elections. We made comments at SFBC Board meetings, educated members any way that we could, and ultimately wrote a by-laws proposal to implement RCV. Our proposal did not pass in time for the 2016 election, but we elected five more pro-democracy Board members.

Through our ongoing education efforts, Board strategizing and debating, and efforts by SaveSFBike (a group who supports candidates), the proposal did pass last summer. There was a last ditch effort by some Board members to postpone or deny it, by claiming that it required a full vote of the membership since it might “adversely affect member voting rights.” This protest was mounted in the face of petitions delivered to the Board supporting RCV, signed by over 50 members, plus other messages of support sent in. A few people (fewer than 5) spoke in opposition.

We are most appreciative of the support from David Cary (Californians for Electoral Reform) and Pedro Hernandez (FairVote California). We are now working hard to assure that the next Board election is well-understood by members, has high turnout because members will believe that their vote counts, and will elect a Board committed to improving bicycling in San Francisco in the most creative, inclusive ways possible.

Our whole country is suffering from low turnout and non-representative elections. Starting to build better elections within advocacy groups at the local level seems an important step in the whole strategy to bring healthy democracy back to our country.

Peggy da Silva grew up in San Francisco and has been a long time member of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, having served as a board member for two years. She has worked as a health educator with migrant farmworkers, food hubs, and community serving organizations. She is also involved with her neighborhood and environmental activities.


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