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News In Numbers: Data Shows Proposed San Diego Election Change Would Help Democrats

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Photo credit: Megan Wood / inewsource

City Council candidate Chris Ward celebrates his victory in the June election at San Diego's Golden Hall, June 7, 2016.

Data from past elections suggests San Diego Democrats could get a boost from a more liberal electorate under a proposed change to the city's voting format.

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Data from the San Diego County Registrar of Voters Office suggests that Democrats could get a boost from a more liberal electorate under a proposed change to San Diego’s voting format.

Two weeks ago, the San Diego City Council voted to put on the November ballot a proposal to send the top two candidates in June primaries to November general elections, regardless of whether any candidate achieves a majority.

Currently, candidates for mayor, city attorney and City Council win outright in June if they receive more than half the vote.

The 5-4 vote along party lines outraged Republicans who accused the council’s Democratic majority of backing the measure for partisan gain.

Conventional wisdom says the electorate in November is more liberal than that in June, so forcing runoffs would boost the chances of Democrats winning.

City voting data supports that contention.

In the November 2014 general election, 41 percent of voters were registered Democrats, unchanged from the June primary. But the share of Republicans fell 4 points, to 33 percent of voters, while the share of independents rose 3 points, to 22 percent.

It was the same story for the preceding three election cycles.

From 2008 through 2014, the Democratic share of the vote remained virtually unchanged between the primary and general elections. The Republican share consistently declined, anywhere from 3 to 7 percentage points. That drop was mirrored by a rise in the share of independents, which increased anywhere from 3 to 7 points.

Share of voting population by party registration

* Independents casting a Democratic ballot count as independent in this data Source: Office of the San Diego County Registrar of Voters

The change was fueled by a surge in voter turnout among independent voters relative to their party-aligned peers.

From 2008 through 2014, turnout among independent voters rose by an average of 157 percent between the primary and general elections. That compares with an increase of 96 percent among Democrats and just 63 percent among GOP voters.

The year with the greatest jump in independent turnout between the primary and general elections was 2008 when it skyrocketed 250 percent, from 36,654 independent voters participating in the primary to 128,329 in the general election.

Vince Vasquez, a local independent elections analyst, said primaries tend to attract voters who are the most partisan, so independent voters often skip them.

“Clearly, you have on both sides, a large number of voters who do show up in these primaries. They are largely driven by partisanship,” Vasquez said. “That’s really why you see more Republican voters and more Democratic voters and far fewer independent voters.”

Primary-to-general turnout increase by party registration

* Independents casting a Democratic ballot count as independent in this data Source: Office of the San Diego County Registrar of Voters

So who are these independent voters?

A Gallup survey released at the start of this year found that self-described independents split evenly between those who lean Democratic and those who lean Republican.

If San Diego’s independents tend to vote similarly to their national counterparts, then that would provide Democratic candidates with a more favorable electorate in November than in June.

Vasquez said San Diego’s independents tend to be younger and racially diverse, which helps Democrats.

“These are demographic groups that are more progressive, probably less likely to vote for Republicans, and I think that makes it probably even more of a blue wall when it comes to these election cycles,” Vasquez said. “It’s going to be much more challenging, I would say, in the future for Republican candidates to win some election cycles here locally that otherwise aren’t as competitive now.”

The prospect of a challenging November electorate was part of the reason City Council District 1 Republican candidate Ray Ellis conceded his race to Democrat Barbara Bry last Friday, before a single vote had been cast.

But there’s a catch. Because many of these independent voters are likely motivated by one or two particular high-profile candidates or ballot questions, there’s no guarantee they’ll bother to vote in races other than those that brought them out in the first place.

“I would have a strong suspicion you’re going to see a significant drop-off in these precincts where you have a very large number of independent voters,” Vasquez said.

That would temper the advantage Democrats might get from these voters.

Aside from that, Vasquez said local Republicans — including Mayor Kevin Faulconer and former Mayor Jerry Sanders — have been able to rack up wins even in a Democratic city by running campaigns that resonate with voters across the ideological spectrum.

Vasquez said success is ultimately about making a compelling case to the electorate you have.

“Political consultants and campaign managers are paid to work with the election they’re given, not the one they want, right?”

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