San Diego City Attorney Candidates Join Independent Voter Project to Talk About the Right to Vote in the General Election

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IVP San Diego, a chapter of the Independent Voter Project (IVP), hosted an informative panel discussion on April 8 with four of the five declared candidates running for San Diego city attorney. Among the biggest topics of the night was San Diego’s 50% plus one rule in primary elections.

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Candidates Gil Cabrera, Rafael Castellanos, Mara Elliott, and Bryan Pease joined a sizable group of San Diego voters at Lestat’s West in Normal Heights to discuss the impact of 50% plus one, as well as other issues related to voter rights, turnout, and campaign finance.

The fifth candidate in the race, Robert Hickey, had a scheduling conflict.

(50% plus one) is one of the most important and undemocratic election laws that is not well understood by voters.

This rule is one of the most important and undemocratic election laws that is not well understood by voters. Similar to California’s nonpartisan, top-two primary (authored by IVP), voters in San Diego city elections (including city attorney) send the top two vote-getters in June to the general election… that is unless one candidate receives over 50% of the vote, in which case the election is over and that candidate is declared the winner.

The effect of the rule is that if a candidate is declared the winner in the June “primary,” voters and the public are left without a choice or a public dialogue about the issues facing the office for the general election.

IVP is currently organizing an effort to remove the 50% plus one rule and require all city elections to be decided in November.

“It is an indisputable fact that turnout is generally at least double in the general election from what it was in the primary. And, when you look at turnout among minority and young voters, that difference is three, four, and even five times as high,” IVP Co-Chair Jeff Marston stated.

The panel of candidates largely focused on the challenges — political and schedule-wise — of bringing 50% plus one to the Council Charter Review and Rules Committee for placement on the November ballot. In general, though, the candidates seemed open to reform.

Here is what the candidates had to say about 50% plus one:

Gil Cabrera: “I appreciate and support IVP’s effort to make sure more voters are engaged, educated and participating in our elections. Revising the 50%+1 rule in our local primaries is an important way to make sure our electorate is fully engaged in these critically important races.”

Rafael Castellanos: “Fulfilling the promise of the American democracy requires that we take every opportunity to increase voter participation. Getting rid of the 50%+1 primary system is such an opportunity.”

Mara Elliott: “Increasing civic participation is vital for amplifying the voices of ordinary people and getting more attention to neglected neighborhoods that deserve better. I support reforms to increase voter turnout and hold politicians accountable, like the full voter participation measure to ensure elections are decided in November when the most people participate.”

In 2012, only 2 of the 7 citywide races went to the general election despite turnout in the primary being just 220,679 voters, compared to the general election’s 448,138. That means over 227,000 voters in November could have been cut out of certain parts of the election process!

And in 2014, voters had the right to vote in the general election for just 1 out of 4 citywide elections.

In 2012, only 2 of the 7 citywide races went to the general election despite turnout in the primary being just 220,679 voters.

The rate of Latino and African-American voter turnout, in particular, is far lower than their counterparts — for a variety of reasons including the lack of voter education that goes into reaching these segments of the electorate at the primary stage.

As a result, the 50% plus 1 rule deprives a lot of voters of their right to a meaningful election process — and in turn — representation.

This law is also misleading to voters, because the term “primary” implies that a final election will follow. As it currently stands, however, San Diego’s primary election is actually a general election because it has the potential to end at the primary stage.

Nothing is more important to our democratic system of representation than the way we elect our leaders. And we thank the candidates for San Diego city attorney for taking the time out of their busy schedules to discuss this important issue.

Editor’s Note: IVP also reached out to Bryan Pease and Robert Hickey for comment. We will update the article if and when we hear from their campaigns.

Photo Credit: Alex Gauthier / IVN.us