What started as a civil debate about a city ballot measure that would require mandatory runoffs in contested city elections turned into a tense battle.
The four panelists who gathered at San Diego State University for Politifest on Saturday agreed on one thing: The current election process, which allows city candidates to win outright in June elections, needs to change.
There wasn’t much agreement beyond that, a reality that became particularly apparent when a labor leader who’s advocated for the ballot item known as Measure K  joked he’d rather not sit beside a former state senator who also supports the measure. None of the the panelists could agree on method or reason behind the need for changes in the electoral procedures.
Currently, if a candidate for San Diego mayor, City Council or city attorney receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the June primary election, he or she wins the position outright, forgoing the need to participate in the general election. Measure K would instead require a runoff during the November general election between the top-two vote-getters in June.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer won a second term with 58 percent of the vote in the June primary election.
The seemingly impressive victory by Faulconer is actually hollow, proponents of the measure say.
Primary elections in recent history have much lower turnout in relation to general elections, with a difference of 40 percent in voter turnout between the June and November elections in 2012. That means a smaller group of San Diegans decided a major election.
Advocates said change is necessary as soon as possible in order to ensure more San Diegans get to weigh in on who their leaders will be while those on the other side said they’re concerned that change would come too hastily – and potentially, come with unintended costs.
On Saturday, labor leader Mickey Kasparian and former state Sen. Steve Peace argued for the measure while Republican City Councilman Chris Cate and GOP political consultant Ryan Clumpner argued against it.
Peace, representing the Independent Voter Project, was first to speak at the panel. He started by railing against special interests and focused on “giving power back to the people.”
He later repeatedly interrupted other panelists and criticized supporters of both KPBS and Politifest organizer Voice of San Diego. All left the crowd laughing nervously and taking to Twitter to vent.
Kasparian focused on voter participation and argued many voters are confused when elected officials are actually elected.
“Facts: as few as 20 percent of registered voters vote in June and as high as 80 percent of registered voters vote in November,” he said. “So first and foremost it should be about democracy and full voter participation. Why would we want the smallest amount of voters to decide the people who will lead us?”
Cate and Clumpner didn’t challenge those numbers. They just urged more analysis.
Cate claimed Los Angeles city officials spent 18 months assessing the impact of similar measures and argued San Diego shouldn’t rush into changing such a fundamental part of the electoral process without careful consideration.
“This is something that should not be taken lightly,” Cate said.
Clumpner said Measure K sets a dangerous precedent. Changing election rules so haphazardly is a dangerous road to go down while other choices are available, he said.
The other choice Clumpner offered was what he called ranked voting, a November-only election “where you order the priority of your candidates in the preference of your choosing and the voting system automatically calculates a runoff scenario all in one election.”
“If there are better alternatives then why should we settle for something that half of the people on this stage just acknowledged is actually just an inferior product for putting in front of voters?” Clumpner said.
But Clumpner didn’t get a chance to explain that concept during the debate. Instead, speakers – particularly Peace – argued about other issues.
Kasparian expressed his frustration about this during the panel.
“When this started, I needed a bottle of water. Now I need a beer,” said Kasparian about halfway through the discussion.
The rancor didn’t end after the panel.
Shortly after panelists left the stage, VOSD Editor in Chief Scott Lewis snapped this photo of Peace briefly confronting Cate.
Lewis said the two didn’t raise their voices despite that tense photo.
Peace, Kasparian and Cate all later characterized the discussion as being civil but to observers it was a lesson in a previously unknown form of civility.
“It was a good conversation,” Cate, who also opposed Measure K, said. “At the end of the day, there were concessions about moving to November-only elections and there is debate on how you get there.”
Kasparian, who immediately headed to Oggi’s for a beer after the panel, was less satisfied.
“I was surprised people were getting off track,” Kasparian said. “People weren’t focusing in on (Measures) K and L.”