Measure O: Timing Is Everything
Voters Will Choose Whether To Change City’s Election Schedule
By Joshua H. Silavent - Staff Writer
September 25, 2012 – In April, barely 13 percent of registered voters in three districts cast ballots in Long Beach City Council elections. Put another way, less than 10,000 voters in a city of more than 460,000 residents determined the makeup of one-third of the council.
Poor voter turnout has plagued Long Beach for years. Perhaps apathy is to blame. Or maybe politics here suffers the same distrust it does in Washington.
Neither of these can be quantified in any meaningful way, however. And that’s why some are pointing the finger at the timing of elections.
“It’s very clear,” Councilmember Gerrie Schipske told the Business Journal. “Every study shows that the timing of elections is probably the key factor for turnout. Not candidates, not issues. It really is the timing.”
Long Beach is unique among many U.S. municipalities in that it holds district and citywide elections – including for the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) and Long Beach City College (LBCC) school boards – in April and June. This consolidated schedule dates to the 1980s as part of an effort to reduce election costs and increase voter turnout.
But with turnout now lagging, a push is being made to move primary elections for mayor, city council, city attorney, city prosecutor and city auditor to June with the general election to take place in November, therefore coinciding with the state calendar.
Measure O seeks to amend the Long Beach City Charter to do just this, and voters will determine the fate of this ballot initiative when they head to the polls November 6.
“It’s really important for us to protect our democracy by giving people an Election Day that makes sense,” Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause (CCC), told the Business Journal. CCC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan lobbying organization that helped spearhead Measure O’s appearance on this year’s ballot.
School board elections, meanwhile, will remain in April and June. And herein lies the fight.
“Well, it’s quite clear that we are in a battle for our lives in the school district right now,” LBUSD Board Member Felton Williams told the Business Journal.
Because elections are currently consolidated, the City of Long Beach, LBUSD and LBCC split the cost of printing ballots, employing poll workers and other expenses. If Measure O passes, the LBUSD and LBCC will be left to fund school board elections on their own.
According to a city auditor’s report, if Long Beach were to hold three separate elections in April, June and November of 2014, it would cost an additional $1.2 million.
Under the current schedule, elections typically cost about $1 million, divvied three ways. If Measure O passes, the LBUSD and LBCC would see their portion of election costs rise. And this has many worried.
The LBUSD already has cut $300 million from its budget and eliminated 1,000 jobs since 2008, but the worst might be yet to come. Williams said high school sports programs could be next on the chopping block.
“If that doesn’t send a signal about the seriousness of the budget issues in this district, then nothing else will,” he added.
For opponents of Measure O, this is the fundamental reason to vote ‘no.’
“On balance, we’re talking about having to make a choice between moving an election date and educating kids,” Williams said. “That’s what it comes down to.”
But it’s not the only reason. Just ask Councilmember James Johnson.
“Do I support an additional $1.2 million of cost resulting in slashing education, slashing parks, slashing libraries?” he asked rhetorically in an interview with the Business Journal. “Do I support adding more partisan gridlock to local elections that are supposed to be nonpartisan? Do I support lowering turnout for critical school board elections? Do I support getting elected officials to focus more on campaigning and less on governing? No. I don’t support any of those things. And that’s exactly what this is going to do.”
On September 4, the Long Beach City Council approved nearly $13 million in reductions for fiscal year 2013. Mayor Bob Foster and other opponents have expressed concern that more cuts will have to be made if Measure O passes.
“I’m frankly sick and tired of cutting city services,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to do it more to solve a non-problem.”
For Randy Gordon, president/CEO of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, politicking is at the heart of Measure O.
“This whole thing is about the unions,” he told the Business Journal. “They know that putting this thing in November will give them a big advantage. This is L.A. politics coming right down the river. Just like trash flowing down the river.”
Gordon concedes that voter turnout will improve if Measure O passes, but he’s unsure by how much. Nevertheless, he contends that the negatives outweigh the positives.
For example, opponents of Measure O are concerned that elections and ballot measures specific to Long Beach could be overshadowed if the schedule is changed to coincide with the state and federal calendar.
Moreover, if Measure O passes, council terms will not begin until December, rather than July. This means that the potential would exist for an incumbent councilmember to vote on the city budget – which must be passed by September 15 and takes effect October 1 each year – only to be defeated in November and have to leave office the following month. Therefore, it also is possible that a newly elected councilmember will have had no say on the current year’s budget.
It took 30,000 signatures to place Measure O on this year’s ballot. But it might have broader support if the LBUSD and LBCC were not left high and dry.
Proponents argue that increased costs associated with the schedule change could be obviated in future years if the LBUSD and LBCC also change the dates of their elections.
“Under election law, the only way the school board could change its election date would be by putting it in front of the voters,” Councilmember James Johnson said.
But that’s not likely to happen prior to the 2014 election.
In the meantime, voters will determine whether turnout trumps cost when it comes to Election Day.
“When we look at how our democracy should function, it depends on voter participation,” Feng said. “At some point, we need to address that problem.”