Statement: City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner became “the first incumbent to be sent into a runoff election in second place,” her challenger, Ray Ellis, wrote in a June 21 campaign announcement.
Analysis: Ellis is fighting the odds in his campaign to unseat Lightner and represent San Diego’s northwestern neighborhoods on the City Council. No incumbent has lost a re-election bid in two decades.
But in a press release to news media last week, Ellis called himself the frontrunner and claimed to have made history by getting more votes than Lightner in the June 5 primary. He wrote:
With every vote counted, Businessman Ray Ellis finished in first place with 45.65% of the vote. Incumbent politician Sherri Lightner received just 41.59%, becoming the first incumbent to be sent into a runoff election in second place.
We decided to Fact Check the historical comparison because it sounded like a bold claim and Ellis cited it to bolster his campaign’s achievements.
A review of election records since 1932 showed at least eight incumbents have come in second in a primary election. Four of them automatically advanced to a runoff through old election rules and two didn’t advance because their challengers won a majority of the votes.
That leaves two incumbents who came in second place and, like Lightner, were forced to a runoff under current election rules. They were:
• Ed Struiksma, District 5, 1989
• Bruce Henderson, District 6, 1991
The two instances undermine Ellis’ historical comparison. Just like Lightner, Struiksma and Henderson wound up in runoff elections (which they lost).
Ellis’ spokesman, Matt Donnellan, argues neither election should be counted. The pair first became councilmen under an old election system and then landed in second place under the current election system.
Before 1989, the city narrowed City Council candidates through district-only primary elections and then selected council members through citywide general elections. Incumbents weren’t forced to compete in runoff elections. Regardless of whether they finished first or second in the primary, the general election was automatic.
Today, the city uses district-only elections for both primaries and general elections. If no candidate collects a majority of the vote in the primary, the top two candidates compete in the general.
Donnellan said Struiksma and Henderson should be excluded from the historical comparison because their incumbency wasn’t created by “pure district-only elections.” Both were first elected in a city-wide election and then faced challengers for another term under a district-wide one.
“Lightner is the first incumbent to be elected in our current system and then to be sent into the runoff in second place,” Donnellan wrote in an email. “I did not put specific details about the election systems in the press release. I realized there were some nuances, but assumed most people would think about it the way I did.”
Ellis’ press release contained no context explaining why the two councilmen were excluded from the comparison. Just like Lightner, they were sitting council members campaigning to retain their jobs. Ellis simply did not consider them comparable incumbents because the election process had changed during their tenure.
Without that context, Ellis’ statement inaccurately compares the June 5 election results to previous City Council races. He said Lightner was the first incumbent forced to a runoff in second place in San Diego. But she isn’t. Lightner was at least the third incumbent forced into a runoff election, so we’ve rated the statement False.
Donnellan disagreed with our rating, saying a historical comparison among district-only elections since 1989 is the correct context to consider.
“If I had to remove myself from this and rate it in your scale I’d still put it somewhere on the true side,” he wrote in an email. “Giving it a false based on context that is reasonably assumed misses the point on how monumental this is.”
So what do you think? Where would you place Ellis’ statement along our rating system? Please check out the right column of this page for a listing of the definitions and explain your thoughts in the comments section below.
Though we found his statement inaccurate, it’s worth noting that previous election results have favored candidates in Ellis’ position. Both Struiksma and Henderson lost their re-election bids.
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