Election Turnout: Half Full or Half Empty?

Santa Barbara Voters Post Impressive Numbers

<b>GETTING IN CHARACTER:</b> City Hall’s assistant city administrator Marcelo López sported an election-night stars-and-stripes necktie.
Paul Wellman

This year’s election turnout ​— ​38.3 percent ​— ​may have been the lowest since the city began conducting its elections exclusively by mail, but Santa Barbara’s turnout was still twice as high as the average for 19 other California jurisdictions holding elections at the same time. Of 20 municipal governments throughout Southern California, voter turnout in Santa Barbara was by far the highest. In Ventura, it was 26 percent, in Palos Verdes 20, in Palmdale 11. Seventeen of the 20 jurisdictions reported turnouts lower than 30 percent; 12 were below 20 percent. “For an off-year, 38 percent is good,” said Marcelo López, assistant city czar.

When the all-mail ballot was introduced, the promise was cheap and easy elections with high voter turnout. After all, voters would have 30 days to fill out their ballots and mail them in. Four years ago ​— ​the city’s first all-mail election ​— ​that promise seemed fulfilled as 49 percent of registered Santa Barbara voters turned in ballots. However, that same year an out-of-town billionaire spent $750,000 trying to unseat the council’s liberal majority and voters also confronted a ballot initiative asking if the city’s maximum building height should be lowered. (Both the billionaire and the height restriction lost.) “This year’s was not a contentious election,” López noted. “If you want people to turn out, you need issues. Issues drive voters.”

But if the City Council wants to increase voter turnout, he added, the cheapest and most effective way is to hold city elections the same time as state, federal, and county races. Since 1993, when City Hall has held special on-year elections, López said, turnout has jumped dramatically, almost always by double digits. Driving the question has been cost. For years, city elections were administered by the County Elections Department, but when the bill jumped to $600,000 per election, officials at City Hall experienced sticker shock and decided to go it alone. The all-mail approach is much cheaper ​— ​this year about $210,000 ​— ​but if the city held its elections in conjunction with state and federal races, the price tag, López said, would drop to $50,000-$70,000.

Seven years ago, city voters rejected a proposed charter amendment to hold elections on even years, swayed by arguments that the idiosyncrasies of local politics could get lost in the shuffle of state and federal issues. López didn’t believe that then and remains unconvinced. Santa Barbara voters, he said, are uncommonly tuned in. “The old adage that all politics is local is especially true in Santa Barbara,” he said.


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