It was only eight years ago that Santa Barbara voters soundly rejected the notion of combining our local, nonpartisan City Council elections with the dozens of federal and state elections contested in even-numbered years. As The Independent noted at the time, such a change would have the de facto effect of turning our elections over to the political parties. That impact would only be amplified when combined with the court-mandated switch to ward, or district, elections. And yet, the council is considering asking us to vote on this rejected concept once again. Please, ask them now not to waste money on such an election.
Last time, the council said it was trying to save money. The pretext this time is that they are concerned about low voter turnout. They believe that the ward system will result in even fewer voters. (Conversely, ward proponents had argued that ward voting would increase the sense of empowerment that would lead to increased turnout.)
With odd-year elections, Santa Barbarans are treated to a full discussion of the issues important to Santa Barbara. When a single ward vote is tacked onto the end of a full ballot already crowded with races from President to the Board of Supervisors, local issues will rarely, if ever, make it to the surface. Media time and newspaper inches are already filled, and any ad dollars a local candidate can raise will be buried by broader races.
As a result, the council candidates who win will be those who can win the endorsements of the popular congressional, Assembly, and other big-spending candidates to whom they can tie their campaigns. Add common fundraising and advertising, and the result is unavoidable: Our council race will no longer be independent. (If you think that this is not the real motivation for the current effort, watch the council discussion on the subject. One councilmember, in particular, seemed more interested in making sure that the next mayoral election falls in 2016 than in the merits of the change. I wonder why?)
As a lifelong Democrat in a very blue region, maybe I should support this power grab, but I have learned over many years that local issues often do not lend themselves to partisan divisions. I have even voted for Republicans when I felt they best represented neighborhood interests, and their voice on the council has been valuable.
One final issue to consider: The argument made by plaintiffs in the recent lawsuit over ward voting was that the vote of Hispanics had been diluted by the at-large system. The newly created majority-minority wards are barely 50 percent Hispanic when filtered to registered voters. The increased turnout that proponents of this switch are hoping for will be those attracted by the partisan races for President and for Congress, and so on. In effect, the switch to even years would only re-dilute the vote. Instead of empowered neighborhood activists, viable candidates will be party activists. The neighborhood concerns that the ward system was intended to protect will be diluted, at best. (After all, that high-density housing has to go somewhere!)
Please, let’s nip this turd in the bud! Tell the City Council we have not changed our minds, and we do not want this matter discussed further. Period.