In April 2019, in a 6-5 vote, the San Jose City Council defeated a proposal to move the timing of the city’s mayoral elections from their current gubernatorial cycle to presidential years, which have historically generated higher levels of voter participation.
Indeed, political science research demonstrates clear evidence that the simplest and most effective solution for increasing voter participation in mayoral elections is to move them to presidential years. Supporters of last spring’s proposal are now working to qualify the Fair Elections Initiative for the November 2020 ballot. If approved by voters, the measure would shift San Jose’s mayoral elections to presidential years beginning in 2024.
Why does this matter? Elections serve as pillars of our representative democracy. Through elections people choose representatives who make decisions on behalf of the public and elections help to hold these elected representatives accountable. Low voter turnout weakens representative democracy and can contribute to the adoption of policies unrepresentative of the interests found in a racially and ethnically diverse community like San Jose.
The low rate of participation in recent mayoral elections points to the larger problem. In 2014, only 43% of registered voters in San Jose cast ballots for mayor. In the June 2018 primary election that awarded Mayor Sam Liccardo a new four-year term, just 36% of registered voters participated.
Put another way, nearly two-thirds of the city’s registered voters didn’t cast a ballot for an elected office that directly or indirectly shapes large parts of city policy. Using publicly available data from the Santa Clara County Registrar of Voters, we can estimate what participation levels might look like if San Jose’s mayoral elections were held in presidential years.
In the 2018 mayor’s race 159,323 votes were cast. Compared to a citywide election in 2016 — the closest presidential year — the numbers are striking. That year, a total of 311,278 ballots were cast in the contest for Measure G, a vigorously debated citywide policy measure that increased business taxes. This equates to a turnout rate of 69%, or nearly 152,000 additional voters. It may appear strange to compare voter turnout in a mayor’s race to a citywide policy measure, but the key metric of comparison is the expected turnout differential in citywide races across the two types of election cycles (i.e., presidential versus gubernatorial).
Using this method, the data are very clear. Citywide elections held in presidential years, including mayoral elections if they are moved, bring a lot more people to the polls. In fact, over the last three presidential cycles (2016, 2012 and 2008), turnout in San Jose citywide policy measure contests is, on average, 31% higher than turnout in the mayor’s race held in the next closest gubernatorial election year.
Opponents of moving the timing of mayoral elections have argued it would cause local issues to get lost in the “noise” of presidential contests. They claim voters wouldn’t have enough information to make good choices and might even suffer from “voter fatigue.” These fears are misplaced and lack any empirical data to support them. For starters, the city’s mayoral elections in gubernatorial years already compete for attention with up ballot races, such as statewide races (e.g., governor, attorney general) and state legislative races.
Moreover, researchers have long documented voters have low levels of “textbook” knowledge about politics and government. This is true whether voters are asked about national, state or local issues or institutions. One way some voters reduce information costs is to rely on what political scientists call “information shortcuts,” including candidate or issue endorsements made by political parties, interest groups, newspapers or other trusted sources that help them make more informed decisions. This is precisely why the Silicon Valley Organization, labor unions and other civic organizations in the city spend time and resources endorsing candidates.
These information shortcuts will continue to serve as one of the many tools used by voters even if mayoral elections are moved to presidential years.
If voters did show signs of fatigue or confusion while voting in local elections held in presidential years, we might expect to see a substantially higher percentage of “undervotes” in those elections when compared to local elections held in gubernatorial years.
In the context of San Jose city elections, an undervote can occur if a San Jose voter makes a choice in a contest at the top of the ballot — say, for example, they vote for governor (in gubernatorial years) or president (in presidential years) — but then chooses not to cast a vote for mayor or other citywide policy measures lower down the ballot.
When averaged over the past three mayoral contests (2018, 2014 and 2010), 10.7% of city voters who made the effort to cast a ballot chose not to make a choice in the contest for mayor. By comparison, over the past three presidential cycles, a strikingly similar 11.2% of city voters who cast a ballot didn’t make a choice in one of the citywide policy measure races. *
Research shows there are a variety of different reasons why voters decide not to make a choice in certain contests (the competitiveness of the race, unhappiness about their choice of candidates and poor ballot design are just some), but importantly, there is no empirical evidence that suggests voters will become incapable of making reasoned political decisions if the city’s mayoral elections are moved.
Moving San Jose’s mayoral elections to presidential years would place San Jose squarely at the forefront of statewide efforts designed to boost voter turnout. It’s an investment in our democracy fit for the 21st century. It would strengthen our local democratic institutions by giving greater voice to people too often left out of our politics. It would signal that San Jose values a larger, more inclusive, electorate that actually mirrors the city in which we live.
Dr. Garrick Percival is an associate professor and interim chair of Political Science at San José State University. Dr. Mary Currin-Percival is an assistant professor of Political Science at San José State University.
* The citywide policy measures used in these calculations were Measure G (business tax increases) in 2016, Measure D (minimum wage increase) in 2012 and Measure J (telecommunications taxes) in 2008.