Long Beach voters will no longer head to the polls in April for municipal elections as low voter turnout and a recent state law forced the city to shuffle its election schedules to align with California’s primary and general election schedules.
Previously, Long Beach residents would vote in April during primary elections for local positions like city council, school board and other citywide offices with races not seeing a candidate take over 50 percent in those votes continuing on to June in the city’s runoff elections. That type of “non-concurrent” election has helped to drive down election turnout in Long Beach’s April election.
Senate Bill 415, which was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in September 2015, stipulated that cities with non-concurrent election dates that saw their voter participation rates for those elections fall more than 25 percent below the average for statewide general elections over the past four cycles (2010, 2012, 2014, 2016) would have to switch to the state’s model no later than 2022.
In those past four elections, Long Beach primaries have seen participation rates for its primaries all fall below 20 percent with the 2012 primary being the low point at 12.42 percent of Long Beach registered voters turning in a ballot. Compared to the last four statewide general election participation rates, Long Beach’s turnout was nearly 70 percent less than the state’s in each of those years, with last year’s primary showing a 76 percent decline when compared to the statewide turnout of nearly 53 percent.
Whether or not SB-415 applied to Long Beach and other charter cities was ambiguous until an opinion issued by the state’s attorney general last year that stated the fundamental right to vote was being affected and as an overriding matter of statewide concern charter cities would have to defer to SB-415. The bill does not impact the dates for which special elections can be held.
“While the attorney general decision is not legally binding like a court decision, they’re viewed by the courts as highly persuasive and local agencies generally follow them as they would a court decision,” said Long Beach City Attorney Charles Parkin while presenting his report to the city council.
Parkin recommended that the city adopt the provisions of SB-415 by the 2020 election cycle, something that Long Beach City Clerk Monique DeLaGarza said would be easier to accomplish and coordinate with the county as the 2018 cycle is already over nine months in.
“It is an election cycle that is not citywide, it’s the even districts, so I think it’s a good testing ground at that time for us to move forward,” DeLaGarza said of implementing SB-415 for the 2020 elections. “I think it [starting in 2018] would put the county in a little bit of chaos. Our election cycle for 2018 started January 1, 2017, so we’re already in the middle of our election cycle and we’ve already started the process, working with candidates, campaign finance, so right now our 2018 election would best be held with the city clerk’s office.”
Further complicating the matter is the governor’s signing of a second bill late last month that moves the state’s primaries to March, instead of June, for both presidential and non-presidential years. Known as the “Prime Time Primary Act”, the bill which was co-authored by State Senator Ricardo Lara, aims to make California’s presidential primary more important by moving it closer to the start of the primary cycle.
The coordination with statewide and presidential races which have historically drawn dramatically more voters to the ballot boxes could change the future primary outcomes in a city that has seen its participation rates in those primaries hover around the 10-15 percent mark.
In last year’s primaries Eighth District Councilman Al Austin secured victory by about 650 votes with about 3,200 of the over 29,000 registered voters in the Eighth casting ballots. Sixth District Councilman Dee Andrews won re-election as a write-in candidate in a race that only saw 2,235 ballots cast. The Second District race that ended up in a runoff between the winner Jeannine Pearce and her challenger, Eric Gray, had the greatest turnout (11,090) but that runoff vote was held the same day as the presidential primary in June.
Moving to a March-November model will likely increase voter turnout in addition to candidate stress. Before Senate Bill 415 candidates had about six weeks between the primary and the runoff election, now that could span over half a year which will likely increase the costs of campaigning for office in Long Beach.
The council voted 9-0 to approve the city attorney’s office to draft an ordinance that will formally change the dates for voting in upcoming Long Beach elections with the first anticipated March primary set for 2020.
“I know that there have been a lot of conversations about what we can do to increase the participation. SB-14, whether it was popular or not, the title of it was the Voter Participation Act,” said Vice Mayor Rex Richardson. “This is one of the simplest things we can do to simply ensure that voting is simple and easy and more people participate in the city process.”