San Jose could soon change the date of its mayoral elections to coincide with presidential election years.
Residents overwhelmingly spoke in favor of moving San Jose’s mayoral elections at the Charter Review Commission meeting last night.
“The current system results in low voter turnout in mayoral elections and gives undue power to corporate special interests along with older, whiter, wealthier voters,” said Alex Caraballo, political director of IBEW Local 332. “You’re talking about one seat that is a representation of the entire city… it should be as representative of the entire populace as possible.”
The 23-member Charter Review Commission convenes to recommend changes to the city’s charter, which acts as San Jose’s constitution and determines the powers of the mayor and how residents vote. Monday’s meeting focused on voting and elections, including recommendations for a ranked choice voting system and creating more City Council districts.
A recommendation from Commissioner Garrick Percival, a political science professor at San Jose State University, proposes moving mayoral elections to presidential election years starting in 2024. The mayor elected next year would have a chance to run for two additional terms in 2024 and 2028.
All but one of the 22 people speaking on Percival’s recommendation approved of the idea, saying it would increase voter turnout and make the mayor more representative of the city as a whole.
Walter Wilson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Minority Business Consortium, said Mayor Sam Liccardo opposed the change because he knew if more voters turned out, he would not have been re-elected. A labor-backed initiative to change the timing of mayoral elections failed in 2019.
“Had this already been in place, he would not be mayor today,” Wilson said. “When he leaves this city, and he runs for higher office, we need to remember he’s a vote suppressor.”
Gabriela Garzon Gupta, civic engagement organizer for the Asian Law Alliance, said most people aren’t privileged with the time to study local issues, and that shifting mayoral elections to presidential election years is a proven way to increase voter turnout among low-income residents and people of color.
“The evidence that has already been presented proves that the current setup results in a lower voter turnout,” Garzon Gupta said. “The solution is easy.”
Civic policy advocate Robert Aguirre was the lone voice opposed to the recommendation. He said he understands the problem that the shift in election years is trying to solve; however, if the mayoral election moved to presidential election years, that would leave council district elections with a low number of voters.
“Half of the council is also elected at the gubernatorial race, and if you don’t have a mayoral race to draw people in… you’re basically abandoning those five people to whatever group of people will show up,” Aguirre said. “And those people tend not to be people of color or people of low income.”
The Charter Review Commission also heard a recommendation from Commissioner Huy Tran, a former candidate for City Council District 4, to institute ranked choice voting in city elections. Ranked voting allows residents to select their first, second and third choices for elected officials. If a resident’s first choice is eliminated from the race, their vote shifts to their second choice. The process continues until a single candidate garners a majority of votes.
Resident Ellina Yin said ranked choice voting results in greater representation of women candidates and candidates of color.
“Ranked choice voting would help ensure that the San Jose elected officials reflect the diversity in our city,” Yin said. “Making these changes is what equity looks like in action.”
Lam Nguyen, another resident, said using a ranked choice voting system would eliminate the need for runoff elections, which would reduce the length of the campaign season and lower costs. He said working-class people are discouraged from seeking elected offices due to the high cost of running campaigns.
“There’s almost constantly a campaign,” Nguyen said. “Going to a ranked choice voting system will ensure that there’s a lot more participation from both the electorate as well as the candidates themselves.”
Commissioners George Sanchez and Jose Posadas recommended adding more City Council districts so that each area represents a smaller number of residents. Both said the district-to-resident ratio should be closer to when residents passed Measure F in 1978, which established the city’s current 10 council districts.
San Jose had about 63,000 residents per council district in 1980, according to a memo from Sanchez and Posadas. At that ratio, it would take 16 council districts to accommodate San Jose’s current population of 1,009,340 residents.
Resident Kevin Ma said increasing the number of council districts would allow underrepresented communities of interest to have a stronger voice in city affairs.
“The point of council districts is to represent communities of interest,” Ma said. “With ten districts, you can always get bundled up with bigger neighborhoods that completely drown out your voice.”
The commission will vote on these recommendations on Aug. 9. Before then, the commission will hold a public hearing on these topics on Thursday at 6 p.m. Readers can learn more about the Charter Review Commission on the city’s website.
Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.