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

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Photo by Andrew Bowen

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

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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.

Photo by 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.

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Andrew Bowen
Metro Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover local government — a broad beat that includes housing, homelessness and infrastructure. I'm especially interested in the intersections of land use, transportation and climate change.

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