Next time you see San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo’s seat up for grabs might be next to names like Kamala Harris and Donald Trump instead of Gavin Newsom or John Cox. That’s because the City Council on Tuesday will consider a plan to move mayoral contests from gubernatorial to presidential election years.
The proposal aims to capitalize on voter turnout, which trends significantly higher during presidential elections. San Jose’s voter turnout tends to hover around eight points below the state average during midterm election cycles.
Non-presidential election cycles account for all California Assembly seats and half of state Senate seats, in addition to gubernatorial elections in 36 states, all 435 House seats and a third of U.S. Senate seats.
“The proposed ballot measure is a meaningful way to encourage greater civic participation and would establish San Jose as a city committed to encouraging civic involvement in policy issues,” Ann Ravel, the former chair of the Federal Election Commission, wrote in a letter to the city endorsing the change.
Turnout for presidential elections overall is about 20 to 25 percent higher than gubernatorial elections, according to numbers released by the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters. The same agency reports that San Jose’s turnout during the 2016 presidential election topped 81 percent compared to just 61 percent in the 2018 gubernatorial election, in which the city re-elected Mayor Liccardo in a landslide.
In the 2008 election, which saw record voter turnout to elect Barack Obama to the presidency, 84 percent of eligible San Jose residents voted. Only 64 percent of eligible voters turned out for the 2010 midterms.
“As it stands, San Jose’s mayoral election turnout, at 8 percentage points below the state average, is simply unacceptable,” Jethroe Moore, president of the San Jose chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), wrote to the city.
Critics of changing the mayoral election year, however, call it a grab for Democratic votes.
“Is this proposal in reality an attempt to increase Democrat turnout, especially young Democrats? I think one could reasonably answer, ‘Yes,’” resident Jerry Mungai wrote in a letter to the public record. “This proposal is a solution in search for a problem.”
A memo co-written by Liccardo and and Vice Mayor Chappie Jones acknowledges the lower turnout, but suggests that alternatives should be considered. The duo believe a mayoral cycle that matches the presidential cycle would cause down-ballot elections to get lost among larger, nationwide races.
“San Jose should become a leader in civic engagement for all our elections,” the Liccardo-Jones memo reads. “Rearranging the date of the election for one seat will not get us there. The cacophony of news reports and social media of Trump’s tweets or Bernie [Sanders]’ barbs makes it difficult for residents to hear messages and discuss issues relevant to our own neighborhoods.”
Historically, San Jose’s voter turnout is reflective of national elections. National turnout is generally higher during presidential cycles, especially among Democratic voters, who are statistically more likely than Republicans to be younger, poorer and more diverse. In contrast, Republican turnout remains high during both presidential and midterm elections, which generally draw whiter, wealthier, older and more frequent voters.
Citing county and national numbers, Liccardo and Jones argue that shifting cycles would dampen turnout like that seen in 2018. The memo claims that San Jose council districts 3, 5 and 7—by far the poorest and most ethnically diverse wards in the city—would suffer most from changing the election cycle, should turnout hew to the national trend.
“We must promote voter engagement and turnout for all of our elections, and we need to do so in a way that preserves a focus on local issues,” Liccardo and Jones conclude.
The mayoral election shift would require approval from the electorate in order to amend the city charter accordingly. For the proposal to land on the ballot for the March 2020 state primary, the council would have to approve it by December at the latest. To meet the deadline to place it on the fall 2020 ballot, the council would have to approve it by summer of that same year.
Should voters approve the shift, it would go into effect for the 2024 presidential election cycle. That would give the city’s election board two options: Extend Liccardo’s current term, which would give the Democratic mayor two more years in office, or hold a special election in 2022 to elect his successor. His successor would then be elected to a regular four-year term, according to the city’s charter.
More from the San Jose City Council agenda for April 16, 2019:
- The San Jose Sharks are proposing a 178,000-square-foot expansion of Sharks Ice, the NHL team’s practice facility. The building, currently 177,000 square feet, would essentially double in size to include a 4,500-seat arena, additional ice rinks for ice skating and youth hockey programs and expanded facilities for San Jose State University’s hockey team, which uses Sharks Ice as its home arena. Plans are also in place for the Sharks and the university to share a parking garage. The project, if approved, is set to cost about $150 million, and will be paid through lease revenue bonds.
- San Jose Clean Energy (SJCE), the city-run energy provider, will launch service to small business customers in June. By then, the program will bring onboard an additional 19,000 customers, which will result in lower energy rates than PG&E.
- Councilman Raul Peralez made good on his word to reimburse the cost of his Sister City travel expenses. Now, he's using surplus campaign funds from his unopposed re-election bid last year to foot the travel bills for a couple colleagues on the council, Lan Diep in D4 ($1,084) and Sylvia Arenas in D8 ($1,211). Peralez will divvy up the rest of his $14,086 in campaign cash to local organizations, including to the San Jose-Okayama Sister City Program ($3,348), the San Jose0-Dublin Sister City Program ($3,348), the Roosevelt Community Center’s Winter Wonderland ($1,500), the Children’s Discovery Museum for its annual Picnic with Peralez ($1,500) and People Assisting the Homeless ($4,390).
WHAT: City Council meets
WHEN: 1:30pm Tuesday
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260