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Measures K And L: San Diego's Biggest Election Reform Since Redistricting

City Councilman Todd Gloria speaks at a rally in support of Measures K and L, Sept. 9, 2016.
Andrew Bowen
City Councilman Todd Gloria speaks at a rally in support of Measures K and L, Sept. 9, 2016.

Measures K And L: San Diego's Biggest Election Reform Since Redistricting
Measures K And L: San Diego's Biggest Election Reform Since Redistricting GUEST: Brian Adams, political science professor, San Diego State University

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Two measures on the November ballot which change the election rules, measure K and measure L our attempts to shift power from the city's June election which have lower voter turnout to the November general elections in turnout is larger. Metro reporter Andrew Bowen break that down. On June 7 voters cast ballots in what is referred to as the primary elections. They were primaries for state and federal office. For the city of San Diego, the word primary is misleading. The city's election rules allow candidates to win out right into, if they get more than 50% of the vote. Naeher Kevin Faulconer 150% of the vote in June, which is why his name won't appear on ballots next month. His races settle. We are here to talk about measures K and L. Sherri Lightner spoke at a recent press conference in support of the measures. She supports changing the rules to force November runoff between all of the top two vote getters in June, regardless of how many votes they get. That's measure K. Measure L would require most referenda and initiatives to be voted on in November, not in June. Leitner says the routinely higher turnout in November will translate to a more responsive City Hall. Voting yes will make sure the most important decisions in our city are made in the greatest number of voters vote. That's why I'm strongly supporting these measures. Historically, turnout in November has been much higher than June, sometimes more than double. City Councilman Todd Gloria says measures K and L are about improving democracy. The people are saying, we want the elections to be more democratic, to have more folks at the table. That we align and that the government and state do it that way. The measures are supported by the County Democratic party. It's noteworthy, Democrats have typically fared better in November than June. Both measures are opposed by the County Republican Party, the Chamber of Commerce and other conservative groups. Folks should vote against measure K, this is been a rushed process. City Councilman Chris Cate is leading the opposition. He acknowledges these measures got placed on the ballot fair and square by a majority vote. He says, when it comes to something as fundamental as city elections, these ideas need more discussion. The fear that I had is confusing voters, telling them when they can vote on something and when they cannot this could change our electoral process. There are issues with that, they are doing it in an open and constructive manners. He says is not opposed to reforming election laws to give more power to November elections. A better way could be ranked choice voting, which is used in some California City's. Under rank choice there is no need for June primary, voters can rank their candidates by preference on one ballot. If one candidate gets more than 50% of the first choice votes, that candidate wins. If not, the city starts counting second and third choice votes until one candidate gets a majority. If this is not the best and final process, we should have discussed how to get there. Why should just a few voters make decisions that affect us all? The official yes on K and L campaign has raised more than forge $1000 and it's already spending it. The no campaign has raised half of that with a month left before the election and more than two dozen state and local ballot measures competing for attention, the time to win votes is running out. Andrew Bowen, KPBS news. Joining me now is Brian Adams the local science professor at San Diego state. If measure K is approved, all races would go to a November runoff. Our municipal elections generally conducted across California? Most cities run at the way San Diego currently runs it. Chula Vista moved to mandatory runoff system a few years ago. Most cities with district elections will do it where you have a primary election and if -- you only have a runoff if no candidate receives a majority. We would make this change and most cities would still have primaries in June. We would be unique in California. The state of Washington, all of their cities do mandatory runoffs. It would not be washed -- nationwide. Supporters say the current system confuses voters, the June primary implies there will be a runoff, when in fact a candidate has the potential to win outright. Is there any evidence to support the idea that voters are actually confused by that word, primary, and that's why they don't turn out to vote? I'm not seeing evidence one way or the other. It certainly is true you get lower turnout at the primary elections. Voters are much more likely to vote in general elections, even if those are less competitive than the primary. It is plausible, I've just not seen any actual evidence. Do we know why June primaries statistically is a lower turnout? People vote symbolically, especially in the presidential election. The November election is for president and it has so much symbolic weight, there are many people who vote in the collection who don't follow politics. A lot of it has to do with primary elections not caring -- carrying the same are being seen as important as general elections. In the debate over measure K we've heard talk about ranked choice voting. How does that work? As a voter, you go into the ballot booth and you rank the order of the candidates in order of your preference. If the candidate receives a majority of first-place votes, then they get elected. If no candidate receives a majority, the last-place candidate gets dropped and the voters who gave their first-place vote to that candidate was dropped, their second-place votes get added to the remaining candidates. That happens until the remaining candidate receives 50% of the vote. If you voted for the candidate who got dropped, but you voted in second place for the candidate that got the most votes, that candidate would get your second-place vote in his column. Correct. Do they actually do this anywhere? Yes. San Francisco has been using it since 2000. Oakland and one other two's -- cities as well. Governor Brown says it's too confusing. Do you agree? The process of voting is an confusing. All you do as a voter, you say this is my first choice, second choice or third choice. What's confusing is the underlying logic. It's difficult to explain to many voters why we would do this in lieu of having a simple primary. You get a situation where a candidate receives a second most first-place votes, but once you start dropping candidates and adding their second-place votes to the remaining candidates, you can end up having a candidate who finished second among first-place votes winning the election. This has happened in Oakland. For many voters, they see it as being illegitimate. They don't understand the underlying logic and the legitimacy of the election. It's not so much the process is too confusing, there could be a cost if voters don't understand the process. That's one choice we don't have to make this November. I've been speaking with Bryan Adams political science professor at San Diego State University.

Measures K and L on the November ballot would represent the most fundamental change to San Diego election rules since the establishment of a ninth City Council district in 2010.

Both measures are an attempt to shift power from the low-turnout June elections, which coincide with the California primaries, to the November general elections. Measure K would require November runoffs between the top two candidates in races for City Council, city attorney and mayor. Currently those candidates can win outright in June if they get more than 50 percent of the vote.

Measure L would require all citizens' initiatives and referenda to be voted on in November, unless the City Council takes special action to vote on them earlier.

Discussions on changing San Diego's election rules heated up in mid-2015, when incumbent Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, appeared on an easy path to re-election. Some Democrats thought if only they could guarantee a runoff with Faulconer in November, when the electorate tends to be more progressive, they would have an easier time recruiting a strong Democratic challenger.

RELATED: Data shows proposed San Diego election change would help Democrats

Those ideas lay dormant for nearly a year, until a group called the Independent Voter Project got involved. This summer, the group presented a proposal to the San Diego City Council to mandate November runoffs in all district and citywide elections, regardless of a candidate's share of the vote in June. The nonprofit Alliance San Diego presented a companion measure to restrict ballot initiatives to November, as the state of California did in 2011.

The council voted 5-4, on party lines, to place both measures on this November's ballot. The vote became the subject of controversy when Councilwoman Marti Emerald told KPBS the mayor's office had offered her a vote-swapping deal that would have killed both measures.

Stepping stone to another reform?

City Council President Sherri Lightner, a Democrat, has championed Measures K and L as way to improve San Diego's democracy by ensuring the city's biggest decisions are made when the most number of voters cast ballots.

"Special interests and political insiders attempt to exert more influence during the primary when decisions can be made by small fraction of registered voters," Lightner said at a rally in support of Measures K and L last month.

Councilman Todd Gloria, also a Democrat, compared the measures to the city's change from at-large City Council seats to district-only elections.

"That was extremely controversial," Gloria said at the rally. "(But) the end result has been that we have gotten better voter participation, more representation... more diversity — people of color, LGBT, women — being able to serve in public office."

Councilman Chris Cate, who opposes both measures, said they had been rushed through the City Council with little public input, and that the City Attorney's Office didn't have time to vet the measures with state and federal voting rights laws.

City Councilman Chris Cate, right, speaks with KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen, Oct. 3, 2016.
Katie Schoolov
City Councilman Chris Cate, right, speaks with KPBS reporter Andrew Bowen, Oct. 3, 2016.

"The fear that I have is confusing voters, telling them when they're able to vote on something and when they're not able to vote on something," Cate, a Republican, said in an interview.

In a debate over Measure K last month, Independent Voter Project co-chair Steve Peace acknowledged the reform was imperfect, and that he would prefer a system of "ranked choice" voting.

Also called "instant runoff voting," this kind of system eliminates the need for a June primary by allowing voters to rank multiple candidates by preference in a single election. If a candidate wins a majority of "first choice" votes, that person wins the election outright. If not, second- and third-choice votes may be counted until a candidate reaches a majority. Several cities, including San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, have already introduced this system for some elections.

Cate said he would be open to a referendum on "ranked choice" in 2018, but that another reform in two years would make Measure K a waste.

"If this is not the best and final process, we should have had a discussion about how to get there — not have this costly measure put on the ballot," he said.

Both Cate and Lightner said they did not see Measures K and L as partisan in nature. Yet support for the measures has fallen almost entirely on partisan and ideological lines: Democrats and unions support them, while Republicans and conservative business groups oppose them.

The "yes" campaign has raised more than $700,000 from just over a dozen donors, according to campaign finance disclosures, and is spending that money on consulting, polling and internet and TV ads. The "no" campaign has raised $200,000 coming from only two sources: the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce and the conservative Lincoln Club.