On April 15, San Diego Council members will decide whether to honor the principle of inclusive participation in our elections — adopted overwhelmingly by 66 percent of voters in Measure L — or set it aside for political opportunism.
Voters are watching.
The political opportunity is to place a citizens’ initiative backed by the mayor on an early ballot, moving it from the high-turnout November 2020 general election to the low-turnout March 2020 primary. The move to put the initiative — a tax increase to fund a convention center expansion — would run counter to Measure L to schedule citizens’ initiatives for November elections when the most people vote.
Measure L was intended to align city elections with state elections, which require a citizens’ initiative to be placed on the November ballot unless it needs to be decided earlier. The option to place something on an early ballot was intentionally included in Measure L by its sponsor, Alliance San Diego Mobilization Fund, to allow for urgent and compelling questions that cannot wait. This was a good governance provision that was meant to be used responsibly. But that is not what’s happening now.
Even though the California Legislature has the same option to trigger an early election if needed, it has never done so. City Council has been asked several times to schedule an early election, including on the specific issue of a convention center expansion, and the Council has said no.
The City Council has the power to schedule earlier elections, but only when it’s urgent. Council President Gomez asserts that the Council can use that power freely. But the Council did not give itself this power, the voters did and with clear direction to keep initiatives off of the primary ballot unless there is an urgent reason to make a decision earlier than November.
So what has changed to warrant moving the mayor’s tax increase for the convention center expansion from November to March, only eight months earlier?
An early election has become the mayor’s top priority, presumably because he and his allies believe the initiative will fare better with a lower-turnout election. Measure L was passed precisely to prevent this type of election manipulation.
Make no mistake, there is no urgency. The mayor has been talking about an expansion for years, but has bungled his efforts. He has not secured the land needed for it. In fact, he forfeited the option to buy the land when he failed to take the necessary steps to place the initiative on the November 2018 election. Consequently, the land continues to be leased to Fifth Avenue Landing for another five years. So what’s the rush? What is so urgent that we should defy the will of the voters who asked that measures be decided in November when most people vote?
Proponents of an early election have argued that it is justified because part of the revenue generated from the mayor’s tax increase would pay for homelessness services, but the city has other revenue to help the homeless right now. In fact, as Councilman Chris Ward pointed out on the Voice of San Diego Podcast, the City Council has authorized the mayor to spend $14 million on homelessness and he has yet to spend a dime.
Proponents also argue that there is no cost to moving the initiative to the March primary because it’s already scheduled.
That ignores the point of Measure L.
The harm and ultimate cost is not money, it’s voter inclusion and voter participation – especially young voters whose turnout is five times higher in a November general election than in a primary. They and other marginalized voters would be left out of this decision-making. Turnout in a primary has never been anywhere near turnout in a general election, even in 2008 or 2016. The average turnout gap in the last three presidential cycles has been 40 points.
Voters were clear when they overwhelmingly cast their ballots in favor of Measure L. They said democracy functions best when the most people vote, and that is in November when the mayor’s initiative is already scheduled.
The issue before Council boils down to one question: Should political expediency trump inclusive voter participation? The voters have told us what the answer should be: No.
Andrea Guerrero is the executive director of Alliance San Diego Mobilization Fund, the sponsor of Measure L.