Labor leader Mickey Kasparian and Councilman Todd Gloria recently suggested that their preferred candidates would win more elections if we changed the City Charter to require that all elections automatically go to a November runoff, regardless of whether a candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in June.

Commentary - in-story logoThis change would be a dramatic departure from the election system used in San Diego for over 100 years and shared by almost all other major cities, including progressive strongholds.

Before we rush to change the rules to accommodate Kasparian and Gloria’s ambition, let’s take a moment to consider how the current system works, what other cities do and how this change might impact our local government.

Three distinctive features characterize our current system of local elections.

First, it’s nonpartisan. This makes it unique from state and federal elections. Party affiliation does not appear on the ballot and there is no “primary” to nominate a candidate from each party who then advance to a general election.

Second, there are two stages, a June election and a November runoff. This allows a crowded field to be narrowed, and at least part of the election to happen outside the chaos and noise of big gubernatorial and presidential elections. It also ensures that the winner receives a majority vote as opposed to a plurality.


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Third, the November runoff only happens if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in June. This cuts down on the cost of elections, for both the city and campaigns. It also creates an incentive for candidates to campaign seriously during the quieter June election when voters can focus on local issues, rather than hoarding resources to compete in a noisy November election.

Looking at the top 10 U.S. cities, eight of them share with us these three characteristics. The other two – New York and Philadelphia – have a completely different system. Specifically, they use a closed partisan primary. This system requires a November runoff because the first election is only open to political party members.

So why do most big cities opt for the same system as San Diego? The reasons have been pretty obvious to most civic leaders across the county for the past century.

This system reduces the role of political parties, reduces the costs of campaigns and elections and allows for the possibility that a winner can be elected at a time when more focus is given to local issues.

Kasparian and Gloria argue that we should spend the extra money on a mandatory runoff because it will change the overall composition of government in their favor. Even if we accept this dubious motive, evidence to back up the hypothesis is thin.

Going back to the top 10 cities, the other nine are all dominated by wide labor-Democrat majorities. Chicago, through the same runoff system as ours, has 50 aldermen (council members) and only one of them is Republican. Clearly, the runoff system has not held back labor candidates in other cities the way Kasparian and Gloria suggest it does here.

Looking locally, the most recent example of a November runoff resulted in the election of Councilman Chris Cate, who won by six points. If labor lost the last contested November runoff, what makes them think they would succeed going forward?

There are a couple possible explanations for why Kasparian and Gloria have not been as successful in San Diego as their counterparts in other big cities. San Diego is a more moderate place politically, so it might just not be possible. Or perhaps they are not as well organized as their counterparts elsewhere.

Either way, their rush to blame the election calendar is misguided. If Kasparian and Gloria really want to change the outcome of elections, they should consider how their counterparts have succeeded at wining more votes within the same election framework.

Gloria and Kasparian could appeal to a broader coalition, register more voters who agree with them or increase turnout among current voters who agree with them. Any of those actions could change the outcome of elections without a self-serving change to the City Charter.

Ryan Clumpner is executive director of the Lincoln Club of San Diego County. Clumpner’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: City Council, Opinion

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    7 comments
    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Let's start by acknowledging that while Mr. Clumper notes that city elections are ostensibly nonpartisan, he represents a group that backs Republicans. He would not be protesting unless he thought Republicans would somehow be disadvantaged by the change. So much for nonpartisan.

    Two things about the current system are wrong. First is that participation in the democratic process is already fairly weak. It is much weaker during the primary. That means less public engagement and ownership by the voters of decisions on who leads the community. That results to a sense of disenfranchisement. Certainly you can blame this on the voters who choose not to vote in the primary, but how many know the this may be a de facto runoff election? Few I think.

    The second problem is the political games that are played to try to push the election to the fall. We end up with candidates sometimes put forth only to garner enough votes to ensure that someone else doesn't get 50% +1. Sometimes we have seen adherents of one party quietly supporting a candidate from the other party, not because they endorse the beliefs of that candidate, but because it will prevent an outright win in June. This is just another distortion of the democratic process. 

    Democracy works best when the maximum number of people participate and have a sense of ownership of the process, even when they are on the losing side.

    ZachW
    ZachW subscriber

    The definition of a primary election is a preliminary election to choose candidates that will then proceed to a principal election. A lot people who don't follow politics closely might not even be aware that candidates can win outright since it's not consistent and since the media et al refer to these as "primaries". I wonder how many voters think, "oh this election isn't important, it's just a primary. I will wait and vote in the general." I know the counter-argument is that it's a voter's responsibility to be aware of the process, but it's also the government's job to make the process transparent, consistent, and not use false terms for things like calling a hybrid election a primary election. It's misleading and needs to be fixed!

    ZachW
    ZachW subscriber

    To suggest that this system removed party influence from elections is idiotic. People still know which party the candidates belong to, like minded politically motivated groups still contribute to them, and local party bosses still endorse them.

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    San Digo city council races are nonpartisan?  While that may be technically correct, it surely is not the reality in this town and to state that in this manner is extremely misleading.  In just the last election, there was a lot of partisanship about electing Cate and Zapf to help Faulconer get more Republican votes on the council.  I like the idea of a runoff election.  Sometimes the strain of keeping up a false facade can't be sustained for an extended period of time and those extra months could be just what is needed for some folks to see the flaws they did not see at first.

    tarfu7
    tarfu7 subscribermember

    This issue boils down to a fundamental question: Should our voting system be designed to give a voice to as many citizens as possible? Or should it be designed to prioritize the voices of the most motivated & diligent citizens?

    If your priority is expanding democracy - rather than winning elections - I think the answer is pretty obvious. 

    It's hard to take a party seriously when their strategy for winning is keeping participation low.

    Bob Stein
    Bob Stein subscriber

    No matter how you spin it, just as fewer tourists lead to lower off-season room rates, off-season elections lead to fewer voters. 

    Because of it, these elections reward the party with the most motivated voters, which in San Diego are Republicans. They result in candidates and measures gaining approval with a small number of voters. 

    We will witness this in January if a small number of rabid Chargers fans win public funding, in the depths of the off-season, for a stadium the majority of San Diegans don’t want.

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    @Arizona Bread Then those of us opposed have to do what voters in Chicago do, vote early and vote often.