On July 11, the San Diego City Council reached a near unanimous agreement on a controversial issue: making changes to the city’s election process in order to increase voter participation and engagement. Unfortunately, the Council leadership failed to use the agreement to generate consensus around thoughtful reform. Instead, on a 5-4 vote, it forced through a fundamental change to our electoral process that will prove to be costly, nonsensical and legally tenuous.

The “mandatory run-off” system would force June and November elections even if a candidate wins a primary by an overwhelming majority or is running unopposed. It is worth noting that this system is not used in any large city in California or any large metropolitan area in the nation. Locally, it has not undergone a thorough legal review and will likely take millions of dollars away from streets and public safety while forcing voters to go through a prolonged and taxing election cycle.

Generally, when politicians want to propose fundamental changes to the structure of our democracy, there is a credible, bipartisan and independent process to back it up with. The correct approach would have been to study all of the options, research all facts, engage every community and strive to reach consensus.

Instead, five of our colleagues chose the wrong approach.

Typically, a proposal of this magnitude would be brought up by a City Council member or staff, scheduled to be heard at a committee, studied by the city attorney and the independent budget analyst, and then brought back for further review. Instead, at the last minute, a lobbyist and private issue-advocacy organization introduced a two-page letter to the Rules Committee, and forwarded the proposal directly to Council. This dark money group, calling itself the Independent Voter Project, has not disclosed the donors funding its effort.

At Council, the lobbyist acknowledged that he had not studied alternative voting systems and he made factually inaccurate claims, such as, “several cities across California have adopted this proposal,” when, in fact, of the top 50 cities in California, only Chula Vista uses this type of run-off system.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

Most disturbingly, when we requested the city attorney and staff be given adequate time to study the proposal’s ramifications and look into other alternatives, our request was voted down.

Why should such an important issue be rushed through so carelessly? The majority on the Council failed to make a compelling argument as to the urgency of this matter. Even the city attorney’s office agreed it needed more time to fully evaluate the proposal.

The city of Los Angeles recently revised its own election code to increase participation. The process L.A. used was thoughtful, transparent and consensus-oriented. Prior to any vote, L.A. convened an independent commission and held hearings across the city. The commission researched a variety of options, incorporated public input and delivered a thorough report to the City Council and mayor. Those proposals were then discussed and debated openly in widely publicized meetings. Ironically, L.A. ultimately adopted a system nearly exactly the same as San Diego’s current election process. Regardless of the outcome, L.A. handled this important issue the right way.

We invite our San Diego City Council colleagues to join us in revisiting this issue in a collaborative manner that engages the public and studies this issue with the honesty and independence that the public deserves and expects. They will find us to be willing partners open to all options.

Lorie Zapf, Mark Kersey and Chris Cate are members of the San Diego City Council.

    This article relates to: 2016 Elections, Opinion, Politifest 2016

    Written by Opinion

    Op-eds and Letters to the Editor on the issues that matter in San Diego. Have something to say? Submit a commentary.

    John Casey
    John Casey subscriber

    Jeff and Derek have it right. The ranked choice method has been vetted by the courts. This method avoids a second election if no candidate gets at least 50% of the votes. It allows third party candidates to run and voters to vote for them without throwing away their vote. A good example is the presidential election with George HW Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Perot got about 20% of the vote that likely would have gone to Bush as a result, Clinton won. The ranked choice method allow a voter to pick a Perot and, if he loses, his vote is automatically recast for his second choice. The computer does it so there is no need for a second election. The cost of a special election in the City of San Diego is around $4M or so that would be saved. A recent study commissioned by the City, showed that San Diego was one of the smartest cities in the world. Shouldn't we display those smarts by using a smart election method?

    Jeff Marston
    Jeff Marston

    We also have no preference for when such a measure is considered. Finally, we also agree that there are other reforms (including ranked choice) worthy of consideration.

    Jeff Marston
    Jeff Marston

    For the record, information regarding funding for the Independent Voter Project can be found here,  http://www.independentvoterproject.org/who_we_are    IVP has not raised any money for the purpose of promoting a San Diego initiative and  has no plans to do so.

    IVP simply believes as a matter of principle that elections should be decided when the most people vote. 

    Ironically, Democrats were our harshest critics when IVP authored California's Top Two nonpartisan open primary that is now the law in statewide, legislative and congressional races. Now, locally, the same principle is opposed by Republicans.

    The recommendation is simply to ask voters if they want to bring San Diego local elections into conformance with the way those elections are conducted. In the end it is the voters' choice. As we did with Prop 14, we will encourage and promote arguments from BOTH sides and let the voters decide.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Tell me again just what problem this measure is designed to solve?  Oh, I get it.  We need to elect more Democrats in races that are "non partisan".  

    If voting in primaries is such a burden, maybe the stressed out non-voters should reorganize their priorities.  E.g., all you have to do is get on the "vote by mail" list and they send you a ballot.  

    My wife came up another question that might be asked.  If you want to change the rules for the primary, shouldn't it be decided in a primary election?

    bgetzel subscriber

    This has become a partisan issue, although it shouldn't be. The Republicans (i.e. the authors of this op ed.) feel that the new system does not benefit them (in the short-term anyway), so they want a second bite of the apple to stop it. Instead of drawing out the deliberations on this issue, they should be good losers and move on to address the many problems the city has before it.

    Desde la Logan
    Desde la Logan subscriber

    It appears Zapf, Kersey, Cate and the local Repubs are scurred of more democracy. It's a lot easier winning in June than November.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    San Diego should switch to a ranked voting system where you place a 1 next to your first choice, a 2 next to your second choice, and so on. They vote this way in certain elections in San Francisco, Minneapolis, Canada, Ireland, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and other places.