City Council expresses support for aligning local elections with county, state

Long Beach voters could soon be asked to change the city’s charter again to realign the city’s elections with the state and county’s schedule after a court ruling last year put charter cities like Long Beach back in control of when local elections happen.

The city is expected to align itself with the state’s elections next year and then draft a charter amendment for voters to decide in November 2022. Next year’s schedule could still be in doubt due to holdups with federal Census data needed to complete mandatory redistricting.

A charter amendment could permanently link the city to statewide elections, which would allow for a longer lead time between the primary and general elections in some contests. Because of this councilmembers may ask voters to approve other reforms such as campaign contribution limits, public financing of local elections and even flipping some citywide races to different years to increase turnout.

The discussion during City Council Tuesday stems from a recent ruling in a case involving the city of Redondo Beach, which challenged whether the state could dictate election schedules in charter cities.

The state had initially mandated that cities such as Long Beach that have low voter turnout align their elections with the state to increase voter turnout.

This year the city was forced to align with the state’s cycle, which is March-November in presidential election cycles like last year, and June-November in gubernatorial election cycles like next year’s elections.

Aligning with the state has created stark differences in the turnout of Long Beach voters. The 2016 April primaries brought out just 13.5% of voters while the 2020 March primaries saw over 40% of voters cast ballots.

Nearly three-quarters of Long Beach voters cast a ballot in the November 2020 election.

Mayor Robert Garcia said he’s always supported the consolidation of elections because the data shows that doing so increases turnout from all populations, including communities that are disenfranchised.

“To me this is a civil rights issue,” Garcia said.

Council members expressed support for the increased turnout seen through the most recent elections but also pointed to potential problems invited by the longer, more expensive elections.

Councilwoman Stacy Mungo Flanigan said the longer runoff periods probably allows challengers more time to make up ground on incumbents, which she said is a good thing, but asked that the city to look at how independent expenditures on city elections could be reined in.

“It’s a step in the right direction but I think there are a lot more steps that need to take place,” Mungo Flanigan said.

Because the state recently moved up its primary election date in presidential cycles to make California more impactful on the national stage, aligning with the state would skew local elections.

Council districts with even numbers would face a runoff period that stretches eight months, while the runoff period for odd-numbered districts would be five months. Some council members said the disparity could make those even districts more expensive to run and more mentally exhausting.

“I was in a six-week runoff one time and one reporter described myself and my challenger as two heavyweight prize fighters in the 12th round,” said Councilman Daryl Supernaw. “It took a toll on us just doing that six weeks, not to mention the toll it takes on the voters.”

Supernaw chairs the council committee that oversees elections and said he brought the item to the floor Tuesday night because it required a broader discussion given the time-crunch the city may be in.

The city is in the middle of a redistricting process that can’t be completed until federal Census data is turned over to localities. The pandemic delayed the count last year and now is delaying the release of data, which could jeopardize even the proposed June 2022 primary election.

The city attorney’s office has advised the council that it should wait for the new district lines to be drawn before proceeding with an election, but because of the Census hold up there is hope that the state will issue guidance, and possibly new election dates, for all cities.

The proposal the council is moving forward with will align city elections with the state at least through the 2022 elections, but how it goes about shaping the future schedule of elections in the city will be decided at future meetings where it builds any proposed charter amendment.

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