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Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

25 Sep 2017

Turnout Turmoil: Legislation Intended to Get More Voters to the Polls Has Confused Officials in Palm Springs, Rancho Mirage, DHS and Beyond

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On Sept. 1, 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 415 into law.

SB 415 was definitely well-intentioned: It mandates that cities and other “political subdivisions” move their elections to the same dates as statewide elections—unless their elections have had a high-enough turnout percentage in recent years. Cities and other political subdivisions are required to have a plan in place by the start of 2018 to move their elections by 2022.

The goal was to increase turnout—often quite low—in elections for seats on city councils, school districts, water boards and other local government bodies, in areas where elections were held on dates that did not match the dates of statewide and federal elections.

Unfortunately… all SB 415 has really done so far is confuse the heck out of everyone.

Three cities in the Coachella Valley have, up until now, held elections on dates different from those of state and federal elections: Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs have held municipal elections in odd-numbered years, while Rancho Mirage has always held its city elections in even-numbered years—but in April, not November.

Because confusion reigns, the cities are each handling SB 415 differently as of now. Palm Springs isn’t changing a thing; Rancho Mirage isn’t sure what it’s doing yet; and the members of Desert Hot Springs’ City Council voted to immediately switch the city’s election date—generously extending each of their own terms by a year.

California State Sen. Ben Hueso introduced the bill in July 2015. Ana Molina-Rodriguez, a member of Hueso’s staff, explained the bill.

“Starting in 2018, any local government holding an election off-cycle that results in a voter turnout that is 25 percent less than the average voter turnout in the past four statewide elections will have to consolidate,” she said. “When we started looking at the odd-numbered-year elections compared to the gubernatorial elections or the presidential elections, the incredibly low turnout rates were why we drafted this bill.”

The bill’s language that determines whether a city or other political subdivision has to move its elections—“the voter turnout for a regularly scheduled election in a political subdivision is at least 25 percent less than the average voter turnout within that political subdivision for the previous four statewide general elections”—has left elections officials across the state scratching their heads.

The city of Palm Springs has determined its elections have had a high-enough voter turnout to stay right where they are.

“We have elections in odd-numbered years, and at this time, our city is not required to conform to the even-year-number election requirement,” said Cindy Berardi, of the Palm Springs City Clerk’s Office. “For the time being, our elections will remain in the odd-numbered years. Based on the voter turnout, our city does not need to switch to the even-numbered-year elections.”

Rancho Mirage, which holds vote-by-mail elections in April every even-numbered year, is still determining whether or not it will need to change.

“That is something that our city attorney is going to have to determine,” Rancho Mirage City Clerk Kristie Ramos said. “If it turns out that we need to change, we have until January 2018 to determine what we’re going to do. But we haven’t made a decision yet.”

In Desert Hot Springs, the City Council members extended all of their own terms and called off the scheduled 2017 municipal election in favor of an election in 2018 … sort of. The city will still ask residents to come to the polls this November, to decide on Measures B and C, which would extend tax funding for public safety services in Desert Hot Springs.

Desert Hot Springs City Clerk Jerryl Soriano said that because of the city’s low voter turnout for municipal elections, DHS had to comply with SB 415. The City Council members voted unanimously for the change—and the one-year extensions of all their own terms—in March. She said she presented various options to the council.

“The bill goes into effect in January 2018,” Soriano said. “The bill states that the cities need to have a plan by January 2018. Whatever plan the city chooses has to go into effect by the 2022 statewide election. I presented different options to the council. The first one, that they went with, was to move this year’s election to November 2018.”

Desert Hot Springs Mayor Scott Matas explained why he and the City Council members decided to move the election to 2018, and extend all of their own terms by a year.

“We talked about the different options we had,” Matas said. “That was what was decided by the City Council, and there was no opposition from the public on it, so we went ahead and voted on it. We could have had an election this year, and it could have been a one-year term for the mayor and a one-year term (for the City Council members whose seats would have been up for election).”

In Desert Hot Springs, the mayor is usually elected to a two-year term, while four members of the City Council are usually elected to four-year terms.

“Being mayor, I can say it’s hard to get a lot of things done in two years, because that’s what my term is, but to have a one-year term as mayor, it would be a little tough,” he said. “It was something we took to the public, outlining the different options. … We could go to a (one-time) one-year cycle for mayor and three-year cycle for the council. Or we could go backward and extend our terms by a year to make everything even.”

Beyond all of this confusion, the political science on whether there is a true public benefit to moving these elections remains unclear.

Yes, there will be an increase in voter turnout by moving city elections in places like Desert Hot Springs and Los Angeles to the same dates as state elections. On the other hand, lower-level elections tend to get lost in the shuffle when they’re held at the same time as state and federal elections; odd-year city council elections don’t have to compete with legislative, congressional and presidential races for attention. There is also the issue of “voter fatigue”—some voters get overwhelmed by huge, complex ballots during consolidated elections and skip ballot items toward the end.

Putting aside the pros and cons of various election dates, officials from California cities can agree on one thing: SB 415 could have been written a lot more clearly.

“Good luck reading that and understanding all of it,” Matas said. “It was confusing to us, too.”

Jimmy Boegle contributed to this story.

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