In 2009, the City of Santa Barbara scored a record election turnout when 49 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in the first-ever mail-in-only City Council race. This year is the second time around for the mail-in-only format, but there’s little expectation of any record turnout, despite the dueling do-or-die narratives of the competing camps. That’s because this election has no mayoral contest, no what-side-are-you-on ballot measure to galvanize voters, and no massive infusion of campaign cash, all of which occurred in 2009.
The latest numbers confirm the weaker turnout. As of late Friday afternoon, 12,780 ballots had been cast in the city’s second mail-in-only election, roughly 30 percent of all 45,000 registered voters. At this same time in the last election, there were 15,250 ballots received out of a pool of 46,700 registered voters. The final ballots must be turned in — not just postmarked — by Tuesday, November 8.
This year’s race has 10 candidates vying for three seats. All three of those seats are currently occupied, and all three incumbents — the conservative slate of Dale Francisco, Michael Self, and Randy Rowse — are running to retain their seats. They’ve campaigned on a keep-the-streets-clean platform of increased police protection, greater fiscal restraint, and opposition to increased housing densities. To the extent push has come to shove, the incumbents have taken on the public employee unions backing their opponents and the Democratic Central Committee, which has weighed in heavily. The Democrats have backed the slate of Planning Commissioner Deborah Schwartz, former councilmember Iya Falcone, and journalist-activist Cathy Murillo. While these three differ on many issues, they tend to agree that increased residential densities are needed in certain circumstances to expand affordable housing opportunities. Mostly, they are united in not being part of the first conservative majority to dominate the City Council since the mid-1970s.
Also running is Sharon Byrne, a neighborhood activist associated with the Milpas Community Association, who is seeking to appeal to voters of all denominations disaffected with their party leadership. In addition, three other candidates — Jerry Matteo, Sebastian Aldana, and Cruzito Cruz — are on the ballot, though they’ve declined to raise the funds necessary to make their campaigns electorally successful.
This year’s race has been a head-scratcher for the political handicappers. Traditionally, a low-turnout election favors more conservative candidates. That’s probably why the Democrats are hoping to mount a last-minute get-out-the voter campaign. Leading the charge will be Das Williams, a former councilmember and current assemblymember. The conservatives took the majority when Williams, the ideological alpha male of council progressives, stepped down to take his Assembly post last December. And Williams clashed both personally and politically with Francisco, the clear leader of the council conservatives. Williams’s field representative is leading the Democrats’ phone banking and precinct-walking effort.
Although voters were given a full month to turn in their ballots, there is typically a large pulse at the last minute. These are disproportionately low-propensity voters who tend to side with more liberal candidates. Two years ago, for example, fully 30 percent of all ballots cast came in the last two days.