Daily Post Correspondent
By Elaine Goodman
When San Mateo County held an election in November 2013 for city council, school board and special district
seats, voter turnout was 25.4% — a dismal showing compared to the 79.83% turnout for the presidential election a year earlier.
Most voters didn’t bother to weigh in on several significant local races in 2013, when nine candidates vied for three seats on the Burlingame City Council, five competed for three seats on the Menlo Park Fire Protection District board of directors and six were in the race for three council seats in Redwood City.
Low turnout for elections in odd-numbered years, when local races dominate the ballot, is a well-recognized phenomenon. The California Legislature took action against elections in odd-numbered years with Senate Bill 415, which was signed into law in September 2015. Known as the California Voter Participation Rights Act, the law requires local governments to hold their elections at the same time as statewide elections, which take place in even-numbered years. Those that don’t already do so need to have a plan in place by January 2018 to make the switch no later than November 2022.
Rising election costs
But local governments have an incentive to act fast. The costs of an election are split among entities that have candidates on the ballot; as cities and school districts move to even-year elections, those that stick with odd-numbered year elections will face a greater share of the cost, Woodside Town Manager Kevin Bryant noted in a report to town council.
The Woodside council last week discussed the town’s election schedule, and is eyeing a switch to even-numbered years in 2018. The town would likely extend the terms of current council members by a year, an approach typically used by other cities that have changed their election schedules. Woodside Town Attorney Jean Savaree noted that the Fair Political Practices Commission has said that councils may decide how to implement SB 415 without a conflict of interest.
More than 35 jurisdictions within San Mateo County are affected by SB 415, according to Mark Church, the county’s chief elections officer. The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors tomorrow will review requests from four school districts to move their elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years. They are the Millbrae School District, San Mateo Union High School District, Jefferson Elementary School District and Redwood City School District.
Although the handful of districts moving to even-year elections won’t strain the county’s election system, Church said, the impact might be felt as the even-year ballots grow even larger. The county is evaluating whether additional staffing or equipment might become needed.
The cities of Belmont, Brisbane, Burlingame, Foster City, Redwood City, San Carlos and San Mateo are expected to soon discuss changing their election schedules, according to the report to the Woodside council.
A February 2015 report from Common Cause, an organization that has looked for ways to increase voter participation, found that 369 California cities, or 77% of the total, had even-year or “on cycle” elections, while 113 cities had “off cycle” elections in odd-numbered years. At the time, San Mateo County had 12 cities with “off cycle” elections, or 60% of cities in the county.
Common Cause said declining voter turnout reflects “waning civic engagement in American politics,” which may result from cynicism about government and elected officials, a decreased investment in civics education, and an increasingly transient society. Common Cause said that synchronizing local and state elections could boost voter turnout for the local elections by 21% to 36%.
A possible downside to synchronized elections is that ballots will become more crowded, and voters might not bother to make selections in the local races that are farther down the ballot, Common Cause said. But studies have shown that voting in local races is higher in synchronized, even-year elections than in odd-numbered year elections, according to the report.
Palo Alto already made the switch
Palo Alto moved council elections to even-numbered years in 2010. Liz Kniss, who was then a county supervisor, urged the change as a money-saving move.
Former Palo Alto Mayor Gary Fazzino, who was no longer on the council, blasted the move. He said holding city elections in odd-numbered years allows voters to focus on city issues, including becoming acquainted with candidates who are newcomers. Fazzino, who died in 2012, predicted that Palo Altans would regret the change to even-year elections and return to odd-numbered years.
A survey of election officials in California counties by the Greenlining Institute, a policy and research organization, uncovered other reasons why some favor elections in odd-numbered years. The off-cycle elections give election officials an opportunity to test new procedures during a less-complex election and keeps staff trained and “in practice” for conducting elections. Others said they favored even-year elections due to the cost savings and because they may make local races seem as important as state or federal races.