Despite a push from community advocates to align San Jose’s mayoral election with the presidential election cycle, the votes to make the change just weren’t there on Tuesday.
Mayor Sam Liccardo, Vice Mayor Chappie Jones and Councilmembers Lan Diep, Pam Foley, Johnny Khamis and Dev Davis voted against the measure, citing concerns that the presidential election would dim the conversation for local elections.
“We need to have informed, engaged voters,” Jones said. “If we change the mayor to the presidential cycle we’re taking the political energy to that cycle and away from the midterms.”
Last year, Councilmembers Magdalena Carrasco, Sergio Jimenez, Don Rocha and Jones proposed the initiative to swap the election cycle in order to increase voter turnout. Data from the city showed that 13 percent more voters on average participated in the presidential general election from 1980 to 2018 than the gubernatorial general election.
Instead of changing the election cycle, councilors ultimately decided to adopt an initiative from Liccardo and Jones to explore ways to increase voter turnout.
The proposal would create a working group with key community members and city departments and return to council in 120 days with the list of recommendations. Per Carrasco’s request, the councilors asked city officials to return with an addendum to the budget for funding the recommendation.
The council also agreed to focus on precincts with lower voter turnout and “institute a measurement of the effectiveness” of voter engagement strategies for the 2020 election. Jimenez cast the dissenting vote.
Reaching an agreement on Tuesday, however, quickly turned contentious as Councilmembers Maya Esparza, Raul Peralez, Sylvia Arenas, Carrasco and Jimenez expressed their concerns over voter disenfranchisement.
“When you’re focused on just putting food on the table, as my parents were, you don’t necessarily have the leisure to wonder what’s on the ballot,” Peralez said.
Besides the noise from national politics, Liccardo said that he was concerned about changing the mayoral election cycle to align with the presidential election because it would negatively impact San Jose’s other local elections.
“If we’re going to move a citywide election from the midterm to presidential election that means you have five council districts that will now have lower turnout as a result,” he said. “Simply shifting voting around isn’t the answer.”
Esparza voiced her concern as a representative of one of those districts.
“Are we afraid of having more women and minorities and youth vote?” she said. “I appreciate the comments about equity, but I am one of the districts that people are concerned about.”
Esparza further acknowledged the divide between the two sides as racial tensions rose.
“Let’s be really honest here, the five brown people on the council are saying this is something that will encourage the empowerment of voters,” she said. “We’re talking about the historic disenfranchisement of minority voters and we’re talking about how to have inclusion of minority voters here in San Jose.”
Arenas pointed out that some of her fellow councilors on the dais hadn’t experienced “underlying racism” during their own elections as she did three years ago. She also noted that the only members of the public speaking out against shifting the mayoral election were special interest groups.
“It’s not a coincidence that special interests know that the power of change and the loss of that power impacts them,” she said.
Khamis argued his point of view from a stance that the current election process brought the city a very diverse council.
“I don’t think the system is broken,” he said. “We don’t need to spend a whole lot of time (on something) that has brought us great leadership.”
Jones, who flipped his position from last year to align with Liccardo, would have been the swing vote to approve the change in the mayoral election cycle. He did not respond to San José Spotlight’s request for comment on the switch, but told the council that voter turnout was not an issue that he takes lightly.
“It’s a fact that San Jose needs better civic engagement,” he said. “Discussion shouldn’t be about one elected official, but it should be about the whole council.”
Jones said he drew on data from the NAACP for the 18 recommendations from himself and Liccardo to increase voter turnout. San Jose’s NAACP chapter strongly supported aligning the mayoral election with the presidential election.
“The data reveals that those voters most likely to participate in both mayoral and presidential elections are disproportionately white, homeowners, more educated and affluent and US-born,” wrote Jeff Moore, president of the local NAACP chapter, in a letter to the council. “Infrequent voters – those who vote only presidential elections – are disproportionately people of color, less educated, and closer to the poverty line.”
Moore told San José Spotlight that the group also supported Jones and Liccardo’s proposal of finding ways to increase voter turnout.
William Armaline, a representative for the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP and the director of the human rights program at San Jose State University, voiced his support for changing the election cycle at a news conference prior to the council meeting.
Armaline emphasized the importance of the fight for universal suffrage for people of color.
“It’s been an essential mission of our organization,” he said. “So it should be no surprise that we would back this measure.”
Contact Grace Hase at [email protected] or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.