Record-low voter turnout throughout the state, including San Bernardino County, had an anomaly Tuesday — significant turnout growth in the city of San Bernardino.
Out of about 77,000 registered voters, the vote on whether to change the city charter’s drew nearly 19,000 votes (all of this election’s turnout numbers will increase slightly as another 15,365 votes are counted countywide, according to the Registrar of Voters). That’s more than 50 percent more than voted in what elections officials thought was a “compelling” but disappointingly ill-attended February election that chose Carey Davis as mayor.
Measure Q still received votes from less than one in every four registered voters — a group that already consists of only a fraction of the city’s 210,000 residents.
“It’s still nothing to be proud of,” City Clerk Gigi Hanna said. “Part of that might be people not feeling connected — but the way to be heard is to vote. It’s so sad that people let this issue, however you feel about it, be decided by such a small number of people.”
But the increase — a large one — comes amid almost universal drops in turnout. The national turnout isexpected to be the lowest in a midterm since World War II. California expects to fall below 2002’s record low. San Bernardino County’s 33 percent is almost certain to be a record low, according to Registrar of Voters Michael Scarpello.
So what’s different about this city, this year?
For one thing, people come out to vote when state and federal offices are on the line, said Fernando J. Guerra, director of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University and assistant to the president for civic enagement.
“You should have elections where the voters are,” Guerra said. “If people are voting in November of even years, that’s when you should have the elections.”
Guerra was head of a commission charged with finding ways to boost voter turnout in Los Angeles, whose first recommendation this year was to change the LA city charter to consolidate its elections with the state’s.
“Absolutely, San Bernardino should change to November of even-number years, or if that’s not possible November of odd-number years, with a plurality or ranked choice system,” Guerra said. “A lot of these cities are set up so they have purposely low turnout, beginning with (opposition to) Upton Sinclair and an attempt to prevent large social movements from capturing elections in the 1910s and 1920s.”
San Bernardino’s charter provision setting election timing was last changed in a 1992 election, according to the charter itself. Beginning in 1995, it says, a primary will be held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November of odd-numbered years and a general election on the first Tuesday in February of the following year.
The last time a local San Bernardino issue was on the ballot at the same time as state and federal races was November 2010, when another proposed charter change was rejected (state law restricts charter changes to public votes in November of even-number years). More than 30,000 residents voted on an attempt to make the city attorney, city clerk and city treasurer appointed rather than elected.
That’s more than double the citywide election prior to that, in November 2009, when Pat Morris got a majority of 14,930 votes cast and so avoided the February run-off.
There have been attempts to change the city’s election timing, most recently when Hanna looked into the issue for the charter review committee this spring. Hanna said at the time that the issue needed more study.
Some studies do show local elections held in even-numbered years tend to have higher participation — even accounting for people who go to the polls to vote for races at the top of the ballot, such as president, but who don’t continue to the bottom of the ballot where local races are listed.
But the registrar of voters’ “initial take” was that the consolidation wouldn’t save a large amount of money, and the county Board of Supervisors might refuse to allow it, as they recently did when a special district requested to consolidate its election, according to Hanna.
“Even-year runoffs are something that could help, and something I’ve talked about before,” Hanna said Friday.
Scarpello said Wednesday that more cities changing to even-year elections means a longer ballot, with local races at the bottom.
“When you have a three-page ballot instead of a two-page ballot, participation drops off,” he said. “Also, it takes longer to count ballots. … It’s not something we encourage, but they can look into it.”
A minority report by three members of the commission Guerra headed gives five arguments against switching to even-year elections, including drop-off as people get to the bottom of the ballot and more difficulty — and expense — having voters consider local issues without being crowded out by the din of other campaigns.
San Bernardino’s charter review committee is scheduled to begin a second round of study Nov. 18.