We’re beginning the campaign season for Santa Barbara’s upcoming city election this November. For the first time in years, the campaign will focus on newly created districts resulting from a lawsuit that aimed to increase the participation and representation of underrepresented groups in local government. But a major reform that would contribute to such participation was left out of the lawsuit settlement.
As the redistricting process unfolded, our two organizations (the Action Funds of CAUSE and SBCAN) along with other concerned community members raised the issue of the city’s odd-year elections. We see the off-year schedule as actually a primary cause of the historic lack of diversity on the City Council. When city elections, which receive only minimal news coverage, are held separately from school, county, state, and national issues, voter turnout for the City Council race plummets, especially among working, young, and minority voters. For these reasons, local Latino community leaders (including all Latino elected leaders) , good government advocates like the League of Women Voters, social justice organizations like CAUSE and SBCAN, and other community members who work to get out the vote, repeatedly urged the city to include a change to even-year elections in the settlement. We pointed out that other California cities with odd-year elections, like Palmdale and Visalia, made that change as part of their settlement of district election lawsuits. But in the Santa Barbara settlement, no provision for this change was included, even though representatives of both city and plaintiffs gave lip service to the idea. In fact, unfortunately, the settlement agreement states that future council elections will continue to be in odd years.
In the aftermath, we’ve been among those asking the council to put the question of changing to even-year elections on the November 2015 ballot. The timing of elections is crucial for enhancing overall voter participation — but it’s especially urgent now that we will have district elections in Santa Barbara. We are a small city, and in odd-year elections, the population that turns out to vote is even smaller. Although the Eastside and Westside districts have about 15,000 people, only about 5,000 are registered to vote. Past off-year elections lead us to expect voter turnout on the Eastside and Westside to be around 1,500 voters. As a result, in a crowded field of candidates, only a few hundred votes could elect a fringe city councilmember who does not reflect the opinions or needs of the majority of the neighborhood. Our organizations and others will work hard to get voters to the polls. But staging elections for small sections of the city, when nothing else is on the ballot and when media attention is spotty — all this makes getting people aware and turning out much harder.
Because of the public demand, the City Council considered proposals for putting the even-year question on the ballot for the November 2015 election. Some members of council adamantly oppose the idea altogether. Councilmember Dale Francisco, now county chair of the Republican Party, indicates that he opposes such a change because it would favor candidates backed by the Democratic Party. He seems to be acting out the script being followed by the GOP across America — let’s figure out every possible way to restrict voter turnout.
Councilmembers Cathy Murillo, Gregg Hart, and Bendy White, and Mayor Helene Schneider all support the concept of moving to even-year elections. Their four votes could put it on the ballot for this fall’s election. But they’ve been unable to agree on a plan. Hart and Murillo supported a proposal for the November ballot that would schedule the next city election for November 2016. The problem for the mayor and White is that this would shorten their terms from four to three years. Mayor Schneider is now running for Congress; if elected she would have self-shortened her term — yet, she resists letting the voters decide on a measure that might have the same effect.
To make matters worse, there is the fact that the district election settlement specifies that council elections will be held in 2017 and 2019 (the mayoral election wasn’t covered in the settlement). Council asked the city attorney to see whether the plaintiffs in that case would agree that council had the right to change the dates of election. He reported that they would not agree to the change — and some of the plaintiffs who agree with the change report that it was “vetoed” by one of their number. It is really frustrating that the chance for the city to have this matter put before the voters for a timely decision is being held up by a single individual.
Time’s running out for a measure to get on the November 2015 ballot. We suggest that there is an option that both meets the terms of the settlement and would get the even-year ball moving: Schedule the next mayoral election for 2016 — and, at the same time, start even-year council elections in 2020. Then, at least, we could have our mayoral race happen in presidential years if the voters so decide, while putting even-year elections in place for the long term.
While the council and mayor failed to put even-year elections into the settlement, they have the opportunity to correct that damaging failure by giving the choice to the voters this November. There are no more excuses for delaying the opportunity to make our electoral process represent the community as a whole.
We’re not going to be surprised if council fails to act. If they fail, we will be hoping that the new council, taking office in January, will be more willing to come together on a ballot measure for 2016. The logic of such a measure is very plain. It will help achieve a voting turnout that will represent the community as a whole — and it will save the city quite a lot of money (about $250,000 per election) to consolidate city voting with other national and local campaigns.
Daniel Ramirez is cochair of the CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance United for A Sustainable Economy) Action Fund. Dick Flacks chairs the SBCAN (S.B County Action Network) Action Fund.