When it comes to how local ballot measures are handled, the voters have spoken clearly and loudly. They want local measures to be decided in the November general elections when the most people show up to vote. That’s why in 2016 they overwhelmingly passed Measure L, which requires qualified citizens’ initiative to appear on the November general election ballot and not on a June primary ballot, unless the City Council chooses to intervene.
But now, just a few months after Measure L passed, the City Council and mayor are considering holding a special election that will go directly against the will of the voters. This will undermine our democracy and turn a blind eye to the very reason we needed Measure L in the first place.
Voter participation in San Diego doubles between a June primary and a November general election. For voters of color, it triples, and for young voters, participation increases five-fold. Special elections in San Diego also tend to have lower participation relative to a November general election. In the last 20 years, less than half of the voters cast their ballots in special elections. When participation is low, our democracy suffers.
If we’re serious about creating an inclusive democracy, we have to implement the full intent of Measure L, which limits local ballot measures to November general elections. This aligns with state elections and avoids confusion to maximize participation. It also keeps special interests from exerting undue influence in elections with relatively low turnout. Additionally, it keeps elected officials accountable to the greatest number of constituents.
Although Measure L preserves a provision that allows the City Council to call a special election, it should be used very sparingly so as to maintain the integrity of the measure. Proponents included the provision for a special election to allow for exigent circumstances. But that provision should not be abused to call special elections for political expedience. Voters expect that the City Council will be judicious in using the special election.
Special elections have never been called before for local ballot measures. Ever. The first time one is called, especially after the passage of Measure L, will set a precedent for future use. If the threshold is not high enough, it will not only contradict voters’ wishes, but also open the door to more elections with low turnouts that erode our democracy.
The City Council has only called special elections to fill empty Council or mayoral seats that were vacated unexpectedly. The threshold for calling a special election for a ballot measure should be high, and as compelling as the need to fill a vacant seat.
It is notable that the City Council has not found cause to call a special election for measures in the past, even when circumstances were arguably more compelling than they are now. Take the referendum on the minimum wage, for example.
In that instance, the City Council approved an ordinance to increase the minimum wage and provide earned sick leave, which would immediately benefit 200,000 San Diegans living in poverty. Our mayor vetoed the ordinance. The City Council overrode the veto, but opponents collected enough signatures for a referendum to be brought to voters. In 2014, the City Council voted to put the referendum on the ballot but opted not to call a special election, choosing instead to let the referendum fall on the next election.
The delay meant that 200,000 San Diegans could not benefit from the ordinance for nearly two years and struggled in the meantime to make ends meet. If lifting families out of poverty did not warrant a special election, it’s hard to justify calling one now for land-use issues that would benefit special interests.
It’s especially hard to justify for the mayor’s proposed increase to the hotel tax to expand the Convention Center when voters just decided a similar question as part of Measure C in 2016. Proponents of Measure C asked voters to increase the tax in order to expand the Convention Center as part of a stadium initiative downtown. Voters said no.
Since Measure C was voted down, there has been no meaningful dialogue with voters about how we should use the land surrounding the Convention Center and how we should pay for it. Spending taxpayer dollars to fund a special election now is not only financially irresponsible, but also tone-deaf to voters who want their voices heard.
The mayor is also proposing to use money from the hotel tax hike to increase homeless services and fix roads, but those crucial issues can be brought to the voters in a November general election and not a special election. The mayor should put a plan in place for how, exactly, the money will be used before rushing to the ballot.
Democracy is the cornerstone of our society. We must do everything we can to nurture and strengthen it. Voters did just that when they overwhelmingly passed Measure L. Now it’s up to the City Council to do the same and limit local measures to November general elections because democracy functions best when the most voters participate.
Andrea Guerrero is the executive director of Alliance San Diego Mobilization Fund, the lead sponsor and proponent of Measure L.