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How healthy is democracy in San Diego? Depends on where you look

As the world marks Democracy Day Friday, the United States’ system of representative government is under attack.

Despite dozens of court rulings to the contrary, nearly 70% of Republicans still believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen. In the last 10 years, more than 29 states have passed legislation making it tougher to vote.

Censorship is on the rise. A growing number of Americans, from both parties, believe political violence is justified.


In San Diego, it might be easy to view these developments through a national lens and assume they don’t have much impact at the local level. That would be a mistake, said Carl Luna, a San Diego Mesa College political science professor.

“The late Tip O’Neill, former speaker of the (U.S. House of Representatives), said all politics is local and that means all democracy is local,” Luna said. “If you kill democracy at the grass roots, the rest of it’s going to wither and die and what you’ve seen is national level partisanship and polarization has gone back to infect the local level which is just going to make the cycle worse.”

International Day of Democracy was established by the United Nations in 2007 to promote democratic principles around the world. To mark the day, KPBS decided to explore some of what’s happening at the ground level in San Diego County.

In certain aspects the picture is cloudy. San Diego has seen an increase in threats to elected officials, attempts to ban books and shrinking local news coverage. But in other areas, like voting, the region is doing relatively well.

Democracy Day is an effort that started in 2022 to draw attention to the crisis facing American democracy, provide the public with the context and information they need, and bring all types of media together to sound the alarm collectively. KPBS is a media partner in this collaborative.



A recent University of San Diego poll found 66% of local elected officials reported threats against them have increased since they took office. Chula Vista Elementary School Board Trustee Kate Bishop said she faces a spike in threats, some sexually violent, when she pushes for inclusivity of LGBTQ+ children and closing the achievement gap between Black and white students.

“The ones that are more ominous and threatening are 100% from men, usually conservative men that identify themselves as such,” she said.


Overall, access to voting in San Diego County is strong. California largely prevents gerrymandering by having an independent commission determine political districts. And the state does not have the harsh voter ID laws and limits on polling places that restrict voting in some other states. No reports exist of harassment of people at area voting centers as has been the case in Arizona, Nevada and Texas.

The only instance with a faint echo of election denialism occurred in August of last year. The San Diego County Registrar of Voter’’s office, received an unusually high number of Public Records Act requests that month for information on ballots cast. The requests coincided with a summit in Missouri led by election conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell, also known as the My Pillow Guy.

Book Bans

There have been a few isolated attempts to ban books on LGBTQ+ topics in Oceanside schools, the Coronado Library and city of San Diego public libraries. In June, two people checked out all the books on display to commemorate Pride month at the Rancho Penasquitos Library Branch.

Misty Jones, director of the city library system, said they vowed not to return the books unless they were permanently removed from shelves. This was a significant escalation from questions she’d gotten previously about why certain books were in the library’s collection.

“I had never had someone say, 'We are going to remove all these materials so that no one else can read them,’” Jones said. “Certainly if you don't want your child to read something, that is your prerogative, but you don't get to make that decision for other people.”

Others in the community responded by replacing the books that had been checked out and gave the library $15,000 in donations to expand its LGBTQ+ display. Jones said she was not only heartened by the reaction, but gained deeper understanding about residents' views on the issue.

“This is a minority of people who are challenging these materials, but they're very vocal, they're very organized,” she said. “And when it's brought to people's attention, most people are saying, `This is unacceptable. We don't want you to censor what we can read.’”

For her part, Jones said fighting against censorship is a hill she’s willing to die on.

“Libraries are kind of the last stand for democracy,” Jones said. “They are the location that anyone can come, regardless of your circumstances, your background, your beliefs, whatever.  And that's what we stand for. We stand for freedom of access to information.”

Migell Acosta, director of the San Diego County Library System, said librarians have seen complaints about books around Pride celebrations.

“We've not encountered an organized group similar to what happened at the city, but we do see things like an individual hiding a book from a Pride display elsewhere in the collection or turning the cover around,” Acosta said.

Local news coverage

The effort to undermine democracy is happening as local newsrooms continue to shrink.

Since 2005, the United States has lost an average of two newspapers a week, according to research by Penny Abernathy, a Northwestern University journalism professor.

“We've gone from roughly 9,000 newspapers that we had at the beginning of 2005 down to only about 6,000 today,” Abernathy said. “And that has huge implications for our democracy, for our society, and for how we come together in the 21st century.”

Newspapers that have survived have seen their reporting staff gutted. Abernathy said since 2005, the nation has lost 60% of its journalists who covered beats like city hall, education, science and business and worked on investigative teams. 

Investment firm Alden Global Capital recently bought the county’s major daily newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, ushering in more cutbacks. The paper has gone from employing 400 people in the newsroom in the 1990s, with several regional editions, to just over 100 today.

“As a result, we're missing a ton of journalism that we used to have,” Abernathy said.

The diminished news coverage is matched by the Union Tribune’s circulation. Daily subscriptions have slipped from the 381,000 in 2000 to 137,000, which includes print and digital numbers, as of March of this year.

The overall loss of local news coverage is devastating. Abernathy said local television stations, online news websites and public broadcasting are not filling the void.

The result is a fragmented news landscape that is a far cry from an era when Americans were presented with an agreed upon set of facts from a few media gatekeepers like major newspapers and the big three television networks.

“We had probably the same number of Americans back in 1965 who were angry and resentful and looking for a fight, but they couldn't find each other, and therefore they were marginalized,” said UCSD political science Professor Barbara Walter.

But the author of “How Civil Wars Start," said now social media has yanked these people from the fringes.

“They can find each other really easily,” she said. “They can chat with each other really easily. They can be fed information from Putin or from the Proud Boys or any other organization whose goal is to actually radicalize individuals further. There's no regulation. And of course the algorithms just accelerate that.”

But on this Democracy Day, local political scientist Luna sees silver linings. Americans, he believes, still prefer democracy.

 “Another nice, positive thing is that it hasn't gotten violent yet,” he said.

Clarification: In an earlier version of this story, we referred to Alden Global Capital, which recently purchased The San Diego Union-Tribune, as a hedge fund. Alden was a hedge fund until March of 2021, but now calls itself an investment firm.