2018 will bring new elections for some of our most consequential local offices. San Jose, home to half of Santa Clara County residents, will elect a mayor. Santa Clara County voters will decide the races for County Assessor, District Attorney and Sheriff.
With most eyes focused on Washington D.C. these days, it’s easy to forget where much of the power lies in the American governing system. Although routinely overlooked, local governments affect our day-to-day lives far more than the national government does.
2018 will bring new elections for some of our most consequential local offices. San Jose, home to half of Santa Clara County residents, will elect a mayor. Santa Clara County voters will decide the races for County Assessor, District Attorney and Sheriff. But if next year’s elections are like recent versions, we can predict that a fraction of the people eligible to vote will cast ballots.
Boosting participation in our local elections requires an urgent call to action.
Elections form the foundation of our democracy. Through them the people choose the representatives who make authoritative decisions. They express our policy desires and hold elected officials accountable. Low voter participation weakens these core tenets of democracy and contributes to policies that are often unrepresentative of the many interests found in a diverse community.
Fixing this is difficult. But there is relatively simple solution that could make an immediate difference. We propose amending the San Jose City and Santa Clara County charters for the purpose of moving elections for city and county-wide elected offices such as Mayor, DA, Sheriff, and Assessor to presidential election years, where voter turnout rates are higher.
San Jose and Santa Clara County have long held contests for at-large elected offices in so-called “off years” when there is no presidential contest on the ballot. Off year elections produce lower rates of turnout compared to elections with more visible presidential contests. This turnout gap has grown wider in recent years.
For local elections, this presents both a problem and an opportunity. In San Jose’s 2014 mayoral election, Sam Liccardo was elected with less than half (43.8 percent) of the city’s registered voters casting ballots. If that mayoral election had been held in 2016, the next closest presidential election year, turnout would have increased dramatically. About 80 percent of the city’s registered voters cast ballots on citywide policy measures last year.
This 36 percent increase approximates the improvement in turnout we might expect if mayoral elections were moved to presidential years.
At the county level, Jeffrey Rosen, arguably the most powerful official in local government, given the sweeping powers of the District Attorney’s office, was re-elected in 2014 with the participation of just 32 percent of registered voters county-wide. Sheriff Laurie Smith and County Assessor Larry Stone won with even fewer voters.
Moving elections for county-wide offices to presidential years would raise the odds that winners have successfully competed for votes in an electorate that mirrors the communities they serve.
Our current arrangement would be more defensible if the voting public shared the same policy preferences, or had the same experiences with government, as nonvoters. A wide body of political science research demonstrates this is not so. Individuals with more resources are more likely to vote than those with fewer resources.
On criminal justice or housing issues, where the interests and experiences of the wealthy and poor diverge, the low participation rate narrows the contours of important public debates. It indirectly skews government policy not only by influencing who gets elected but also by defining the public to whom elected officials feel most accountable.
Democratic governance demands popular participation. By repositioning the elections of these important local offices, we would recommit to longstanding democratic ideals. It’s time to make a change.
Garrick Percival is an Associate Professor of Political Science at San Jose State University, where Mary Currin-Percival is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Melinda Jackson is Professor and Chair of the Political Science Department. They wrote this for The Mercury News.
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