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Judge Puts Major Change to County Elections on the Ballot

A Superior Court judge ruled late Friday that the county must give voters a chance to weigh in on an election reform measure that would boost Democrats’ chances of winning county races.

Todd Gloria / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Voters will decide in November whether to overhaul the way they elect county officials.

Up against the deadline to finalize the ballot, a Superior Court judge Friday ordered county officials to put a measure on the ballot that would force all county races to go to runoff elections in November no matter how well any one candidate performs in a primary.

The case became a bitter partisan standoff, with unionized county workers and local Democrats facing off against the head of the local Republican Party and the five Republican county supervisors. The measure, if approved, would boost Democrats’ prospects of taking control of the board in 2020.

Superior Court Judge Ronald Styn demanded County Registrar Michael Vu “shall take all actions necessary to ensure that the Full Voter Participation Act of 2018 appears on the county’s ballot for the November 6, 2018 election.”

The reform would benefit Democratic electoral prospects by having all elections decided when voter turnout is highest. Candidates today can win their races outright in primary elections if they get more than 50 percent of the vote. This June, Republicans did just that. Republican candidates for district attorney, sheriff and assessor all beat their rivals in June and secured four-year terms in office without a runoff in November.

“I want folks to know that change is coming,” said Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who wrote a state bill that made the reform initiative possible. “There was some doubt that we’d be able to vote on election reforms. … Change is never easy, and power is never given away.”

As of Friday morning, it looked like the measure wouldn’t make the ballot after Republicans made three attempts to block it.

Gloria’s bill last year allowed an initiative to change county elections, if citizens collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. But the legislation included what proponents said was an error. The law was written in a way that said, in order to put a change like this on the ballot, proponents would need signatures from 10 percent of registered voters in the county. Most initiatives can get on the ballot with valid signatures from 10 percent of voters who participated in the most recent election.

Supporters of the initiative had only collected enough signatures for the lower threshold, and weren’t close to 10 percent of the total population of registered voters in the county.

As a result, this year, Gloria and his legislative colleagues rushed through a retroactive clean-up in a budget trailer bill. Tony Krvaric, chairman of the San Diego County Republican Party, and Luis Vargas asked a court to step in, arguing the budget bill violated the state Constitution’s requirement that legislation address only one topic.

In the meantime, Vu certified the initiative’s signatures, based on the clean-up legislation. That gave the Board of Supervisors a limited set of options: adopt the initiative outright, put it on the ballot or conduct an impact study on the initiative within 30 days.

They chose the final option. The 30-day study meant it wouldn’t come back to the board until after the November ballot had already been finalized. The supervisors also decided to study an alternative reform measure, proposed by Supervisor Dianne Jacob, that would have continued to let candidates win seats during primaries.

Initiative backers asked the court to step in and force the issue to the ballot, arguing they had collected enough signatures, as certified by Vu, prior to the deadline and thus had a right to go before voters as soon as possible, rather than wait until the next regularly scheduled election, in 2020. They also argued the study could only be a delay mechanism, since the supervisors wouldn’t have any discretion to put the measure on the ballot, regardless of what the study said.

They won.

But the judge’s tentative ruling, released Friday morning, sided with Krvaric. Over the course of a three-hour court hearing, lawyers backing the initiative prevailed on the judge that the original bill’s intent had always been what was in the clean-up provision. They also convinced him that the supervisors acted improperly when they didn’t put the measure on the ballot after the registrar certified the signatures.

“Disappointing that Democrats can play retroactive legislative games and get away with it,” Krvaric said. “Voters deserve better.”

When the measure appears is a critical issue, because of the supervisor seats coming up in the next two years.

All five county supervisors are Republicans.

Former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, a Democrat, has a good chance to defeat former District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis this fall in a district that favors Democrats, replacing termed-out Supervisor Ron Roberts.

In 2020, Supervisor Greg Cox is also termed out of a seat representing an area likely to vote for a Democrat. Councilman David Alvarez is already running, and will go into that election as a favorite.

That leaves Supervisor Kristin Gaspar’s 2020 re-election bid, in a purple swing district, as the race that could determine party control of the board. Democrats would have a better shot if it were decided in November, and Republicans would have an edge if it was decided in March. That’s why both parties are motivated to dictate when voters can decide on any reform.

None of the other countywide seats – district attorney, sheriff, assessor and tax collector – are up for re-election until 2022. Changing elections would help Democrats compete in those races, but it wouldn’t matter whether the change was enacted in 2018 or 2020. Only Gaspar’s seat hinges on the timing of the change.

On Friday, the judge also blocked a push by the county’s lawyers to put Jacob’s alternative measure up in November, too. The judge rejected that request, leaving it to likely go before voters in 2020.

That sets up an odd possibility: This November, voters could approve one reform initiative, putting it in place for the 2020 election. Then voters could adopt Jacob’s measure in 2020, putting it in place for 2022, when the countywide seats are up.

Jacob’s measure would let any race with only two candidates skip the primary and go right to a general election. But if there were multiple candidates, and any one got more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she could still win outright.

It’s a completely different outcome.

“Nothing in San Diego is easy,” Gloria said. “That scenario is a possibility. Our coalition will stay in place to be sure that the true reform that’s on the ballot is the one that stays in place.”

The thrust of the Democratic argument for reform – which mirrors one passed by city voters in 2016, and which has already assured that Republican Councilman Chris Cate will face a November electorate this year after winning more than 50 percent of the June vote – is that it is best to make decisions when the most voters vote. They also argue that calling elections “primaries” implies to voters that there will be runoff elections they can be involved in later. But “primary” races currently can be a final vote.

Republicans see it as a naked power grab. If Democrats have trouble turning out voters in primaries, that’s not a reason to change the way things are done, their thinking goes.

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