You'd think the establishment of election law would be like a science—and part of the process is—but it's astounding how much of it is akin to creating art. Like paintings in a museum, no two elections are alike. Primary dates vary; who's eligible to vote for what differs; ballot language is argued. There's little conformity across federal, state and local levels and existing rules are ever-changing. Is this any way to run a democracy?
Cue the tinkering suggested by Measure K, viewed by many as the biggest local partisan issue in the upcoming November general election.
Measure K calls for a citywide change to the process of electing officials (mayor, city attorney, city councilmembers). As city law now stands, candidates from all political parties run for office in a June primary and the top two vote getters advance to the November general election. But—if a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the primary vote, that candidate wins outright and no runoff election is required.
Measure K would eliminate the 50-percent-plus-one rule and require that the top two vote getters in city office primaries always move on to a November runoff—same as the laws that apply to state and federal races.
Along with Measure K, there's a companion issue on the ballot—Measure L—that would amend the city charter to require most future citizens' initiatives and referendum measures be placed on the November election ballot, rather than the June primary.
What's the big difference?
"It's a fact that more people vote in November general elections than do in June primaries," said former state Assemblymember Jeff Marston, co-chair of the locally based Independent Voter Project. "And we firmly believe that elections should be held when the most people are participating."
Voter turnout records show that roughly twice as many San Diegans vote in the general election than vote in the primary. And, people of color are three times more likely to vote in November elections, while younger people are five times more likely to vote in November, according to Political Data Inc.
Marston said Measures K is nonpartisan in origin. Still, support and opposition has split directly along party lines.
Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer and GOP members on the city council—including Chris Cate, Lori Zapf and Mark Kersey—oppose Measure K, saying it's unnecessary and adds unneeded expense (quantification of which has been debatable).
"I have never met a voter who thought campaigns should go longer—ever," Kersey recently told City News Service.
Democrats see the benefit of extra votes in the fall; studies point to more Dems voting in November than June. Outgoing city councilmember Todd Gloria and his successor Chris Ward—both Democrats—support Measures K and L. This is despite the fact that Ward won District 3 outright in June; and Gloria, who is running for state Assembly, picked up 72 percent of the vote in the primary but still must run again against second-place finisher Kevin Melton in November (per state election law).
Measure K would be a return of sorts for the city to pre-1989 election law status. Before '89, city council primary races were limited just to voters within each district, with general elections then shifting citywide. When city law was changed to also keep general elections within districts the 50-percent-plus-one rule was added.
Why? Because it made sense and passed a logic test? Because scientific process showed that was the best way to do it? Or, because that was the brushstroke that was painted at the time on the city's canvas?
"At that time there wasn't as much attention paid to voter turnout," said Marston. "Nobody was looking at that."
If Measure K passes it would affect 2018 races for city council in Districts 2, 4, 6 and 8. However, Measure K doesn't cover countywide elections, meaning, for example, that the race to fill outgoing County Supervisor Ron Roberts' seat could be decided—unlikely as it might seem—in the June 2018 primary.
This would appear to call for even more tinkering to conform San Diego city and county election laws.
Measures K and L are good steps in the right direction. A democracy is better off when more people participate in that democracy. And perhaps in some not-too-far-flung cycle—and hopefully with time to spare before the apocalypse—we'll get it just right when it comes to determining election law.