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The Democrats Can't Hang on Primary Day

Instead of changing the City Charter to suit them, Democrats and labor representatives could appeal to a broader coalition, register more voters who agree with them or increase turnout among current voters who agree with them.

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.

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.

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