The City of Santa Barbara recently settled a lawsuit with Latino voting-rights advocates by changing from at-large to by-district elections, as a way to promote diversity on the City Council. Now, under a new state law, and as this election season enters full swing, the city risks another voting-rights challenge for holding those elections in odd-numbered years when voter turnout is historically low.
California Senate Bill 415, signed by Governor Jerry Brown on September 1, would allow a voter to go to court if an odd-year municipal election “has previously resulted” in low voter turnout, defined as at least 25 percent less than the average for that city in the previous four statewide elections. To boost voter participation, the city — or county or special district — could then be ordered to align its elections with statewide elections, which are held in even-numbered years.
In 2007, 2011, and 2013, records show, only 37 percent, 41 percent, and 38 percent of registered Santa Barbara voters went to the polls, respectively. By contrast, the turnout in Santa Barbara during statewide elections is generally much higher: The average for 2008, 2010, 2012, and 2014, for example, was 74.53 percent.
“We’ve been advocating for the City of Santa Barbara to put even-year elections on the ballot in 2016,” said Lucas Zucker, an organizer for the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), a social-justice-advocacy group. “We don’t want the city to get sued.”
The new law goes into effect on January 1, 2018. Already, the groups that unsuccessfully lobbied the Santa Barbara City Council to move its election cycle to even-numbered years — the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party, Santa Barbara County Action Network, League of Women Voters, and CAUSE — are pondering their next move.
Local elections that run concurrently with state contests draw between 21 percent and 36 percent more turnout, studies show. Consolidating elections would also boost the Latino vote, advocates say — 75 percent of registered Latinos in Santa Barbara cast votes in the November 2012 statewide general election, compared to only 26 percent in the November 2013 City Council election.
City Attorney Ariel Calonne said it was unclear whether the new law would apply to charter cities such as Santa Barbara that can decide how to conduct their own elections. In the charter cities of Ventura and Los Angeles, voters recently approved ballot measures to consolidate their municipal elections with statewide elections. In Palmdale and Visalia, municipal elections were shifted from odd to even years.
But the four Santa Barbara plaintiffs didn’t ask for a move to even years, Calonne said. Jacqueline Inda, a plaintiff who is running for City Council on November 3 for the newly created Eastside district, said the plaintiffs offered, but the Democratic majority of four councilmembers could not agree on how to implement the change. Mayor Helene Schneider and Councilmember Bendy White objected to shortening their terms by one year to launch even-year elections in 2016, Inda said.
And in the end, the plaintiffs were split, too. Sebastian Aldana Jr. said he was concerned that to “gain the power they lost” in the move to district elections, local Democratic Party leaders would run municipal candidates together with state and national candidates on the same slate.
“I was the one plaintiff who disagreed with going to even years,” Aldana said, adding that the change couldn’t be made unless they were all on board. “I thought that what we fought for was going to get muddled at the end. People just need to relax and let the system work.”
Daraka Larimore-Hall, chair of the Santa Barbara County Democratic Party, said the system works best when more people vote. The plaintiffs, he said, “did this lawsuit about racial disparity, and they explicitly precluded the solution that would bring thousands of Latino voters into the electorate … That’s what’s insane about this whole thing.”
The plaintiffs are betting that district elections will bring out more voters across the board. During at-large City Council elections, Eastside residents didn’t have much contact with candidates, except through radio and TV ads, Inda said. “It’s a huge difference in how we’re running candidates now,” she said. “It won’t be the parties going out and walking a neighborhood they don’t know. This may not be a low-turnout year.”