In just 11 short months, San Diego Democrats have muscled through a series of laws that could translate their voter registration advantage throughout the county into real political power.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed two laws this week boosting liberals in areas of local government where fundamentals had previously given conservatives a natural edge.

Last November, city voters approved two laws backed by progressive groups that did the same.

Together, the changes chip away at structural factors that afforded Republicans a slight advantage at the voting booth, and gave them greater sway over regional spending than would be expected by the raw voter breakdown in the county.

Brown signed a bill Thursday by two San Diego Democrats, Assemblyman Todd Gloria and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, that could eventually lead to all countywide races being decided in November general elections, not during June primaries. Presently, a primary candidate who wins over 50 percent of the vote wins outright.

That bill doesn’t automatically change anything on its own. But it opens the door for elections to be changed in either of two ways, both of which require a county-wide vote. First, the county supervisors could propose the changes themselves and then ask voters to approve them. But the current all-Republican board has no appetite for that — it officially opposed the legislation. The second way is by citizens’ initiative.

That change, if it ultimately happens, would be a boost for Democrats, since primaries attract smaller – and more conservative – electorates.

Republicans currently hold every countywide elected office – all five seats on the County Board of Supervisors, district attorney, sheriff, assessor/recorder/clerk, and treasurer/tax collector. That’s despite Democrats holding a voter registration advantage, 607,000 to 495,000.

The change to county elections doesn’t guarantee anything, of course, but Democrats face an easier path to victory in all of those races in November general elections than they do in a June primary.

And the change is practically identical to two reforms voters approved in the city of San Diego last year with Measures K and L.

Democrats last year struggled to mount a serious challenge to Mayor Kevin Faulconer, in part because the race was likely to be decided in June, when Faulconer – already a heavy favorite – had an even larger advantage. They’ve likewise lost in June while attempting to unseat incumbents on the City Council, like Councilwoman Lorie Zapf and Councilman Scott Sherman. Measure K forced all citywide races to November general elections.

City voters last year imposed the same requirement on most ballot measures with Measure L. In 2012, voters approved two conservative-supported initiatives in pension reform and restrictions on labor-friendly contracts for city projects, during a low-turnout June election.

One or both of those decisions may have been different if they had gone to November, where Democrats swept tight races for mayor, City Council, Congress and county supervisor. Just this year, Faulconer tried and failed to schedule a special election to pass a hotel tax increase to expand the Convention Center, with Democrats insisting that any vote would need to happen at a regularly scheduled general election.

The other major structural change in local politics comes from Brown signing Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher’s bill to reshape the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning agency that dictates major transportation spending on things like freeways and trolley lines.

SANDAG’s existing voting structure requires all items to pass with the votes of a majority of the 21 representatives from jurisdictions around the county that sit on its board. Under Gonzalez Fletcher’s measure, which takes effect in January, any four cities that represent a majority of the county’s population can pass a measure on their own.

The change marks a significant shift in power from smaller and rural cities that are likelier to be conservative, to larger and more urban cities that are likelier to be liberal.

San Diego Democrats have thus far failed to turn their registration advantage into electoral dominance – look no further than the city’s Republican mayor and the county’s unified Republican control of elected office.

But since last November, Democrats have four times won a change in the structure of local government that gives them an advantage.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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