Undervote, or Why moving election dates won’t solve the real problem.

Last year, there was a bit of a kerfuffle in San José over the timing of elections. The local labor movement had invested a bunch of money gathering signatures to put a measure before voters to shift mayoral races in the city from gubernatorial election years to coincide instead with presidential elections. Due to circumstances that are still in dispute, the signature gathering effort came up short, as did a push for the City Council to put the measure before voters themselves. But one byproduct of the battle was the creation of a Charter Review Commission, which was tasked with making recommendations for changes not just to the timing of our elections but the very nature of city governance in San José.

I could go into the pros and cons of the Council-Manager form of government, but that’s another blog entirely. (Suffice it to say that if you want a “strong” mayor, you should vote for a strong mayor.) Tonight, however, the Charter Review Commission will take up the debate once again over whether and how to shift election cycles, and almost a year after the conversation began, nobody seems to be addressing the root of the problem.

The argument behind the original measure was simple: More people vote in presidential elections. Therefore, by moving our local elections, more people would participate in those elections. And because presidential elections attract a more diverse electorate, our local elections would be more equitable and representative of the city as a whole. On its face, this makes perfect sense. That’s probably why the concept earned support from a broad coalition of community leaders, progressives, and political “experts”.

Even with near-record turnout for midterm elections in November 2018, the percentage of registered voters casting ballots in San José was 12% lower than November 2016, and more than 15% lower than November 2020. And as proponents of the election shift are apt to cite, turnout was an abysmal 46.8% in November 2014 when Sam Liccardo was elected our 45th Mayor over Dave Cortese by the relatively narrow margin of 2,750 votes.

But here’s another number from that same election: 13,955. That’s the number of voters in San José who cast a ballot… but didn’t vote at all in the mayor’s race. More than 5 times Liccardo’s margin of victory. This delta is called the “undervote”, and it speaks volumes about the state of our local elections. It’s also a problem that won’t be solved no matter when you hold those elections. That’s because it has nothing to do with turnout and everything to do with awareness, apathy, and engagement.

As someone who’s been involved in San José elections for the past dozen years as a volunteer, organizer, campaign manager, consultant, and two-time (losing) candidate, I’ve spent more time, money, and proverbial shoe leather than I like to think about trying to convince my neighbors to do something that those of us in the political cognoscenti see as our civic duty: vote. So you can imagine the horror that it strikes in my soul — and the soul of any self-respecting campaign hack — to know that nearly 14,000 of those neighbors did that one thing we beg them to do, but didn’t bother to offer their opinion in what was probably the most important race on their ballot.

A friend who ran for city council a few years back used to say that local government is all about the “3 p’s”: parks, paving, and public safety. It’s a little more complicated than that, but the sentiment rings true. Outside of COVID stimulus checks, decisions made in Washington or Sacramento take years to trickle down to the point of having any appreciable impact on our daily lives. But local government can have a pervasive and nearly immediate impact — from housing to policing to wages to basic services like when our garbage gets picked up, where our poop goes when we flush the toilet, and who can get a vaccine appointment.

Yet in 18 of 28 contested San José City Council elections over eight election cycles (primary and general) from 2014 to 2020, the undervote was higher than the margin of victory in the general election or the difference between 2nd and 3rd place in the primary. That includes every race held in November of presidential election years. Here’s just a sampling of how the undervote has potentially influenced the makeup of our current city council:

  • In June 2016, Lan Diep edged out incumbent District 4 councilmember Manh Nguyen by a mere 28 votes in a head-to-head primary matchup — with an undervote of 2,984 (or 7.5% of ballots cast).
  • Four years later, Diep was himself defeated by David Cohen in November 2020 by 1,037 votes with an undervote of 5,928 (10.9% of turnout).
  • In November 2016, Sylvia Arenas bested Jimmy Nguyen by 97 votes to win the open District 8 seat — with an undervote of 5,595 (11.4%).
  • Two years after that, in November 2018, Pam Foley won by a 516-vote margin over Kalen Gallagher in District 9 with an undervote of 6,105 (an astounding 12.2%).
  • And in the aforementioned November 2014 election, Tam Nguyen won an open seat in District 7 by 209 votes over Maya Esparza with an undervote of 1,151. The undervote was even higher in 2018 (1,875) when Esparza flipped the script to defeat an incumbent Nguyen, albeit with a relative landslide margin of 1,713.

Of course, there’s no way of knowing how these elections may have turned out if everyone who turned out cast a vote. Indeed, the laws of statistics tell us that not much may have changed at all. But statistics also tell us that the undervote is actually lower in gubernatorial elections than it is in presidential elections. And even with a 20% bump in turnout from November 2014 to November 2018, the undervote in San José actually went up from 4.2% to 9.0% (over 200%).

The same dynamic holds true for primary elections compared to general elections; and one might argue that primaries are even more critical since a smaller electorate determines the final two contestants for the larger general election electorate. Or, in the case of the 2014 primary, a whopping total of 8,988 voters decided who would represent District 5’s 100,000+ residents for the next eight years.

So why is this important? Well, if the goal of the Charter Review Commission is to make local elections more equitable and representative, then shifting to the presidential election cycle will make very little difference, if any. The reason why turnout is higher in presidential years has nothing to do with local elections and everything to do with the unrelenting spotlight placed on the national horse race — even by local media.

Last fall, you were more likely to catch a story on the 11 o’clock NBC Bay Area News breaking down the latest tweets from Joe Biden or Donald Trump than the key issues and candidates in the District 4 or 6 city council races. Our paper of record, the Mercury News, ran a grand total of one article about each of those races outside of the editorial pages. And web outlets like San José Inside and the nascent San José Spotlight do more to stoke the dumpster fire that is insider gossip than to sway broader public opinion.

It doesn’t take an advanced degree in political science to understand why more than 5,000 voters in each of those districts cast a vote for President but not Councilmember. Either they don’t care enough about local government, or they don’t know enough. And before you bring up nuances like ballot placement, I’ll remind you that candidates spend hundreds of thousands of dollars getting their names, messages, and faces into voter mailboxes, inboxes, voicemails, and Facebook ads.

The undervote doesn’t result from a lack of awareness that a local election is happening. It results from a lack of awareness that local elections matter. And that must be addressed entirely outside of the electoral process, with a complete paradigm shift in how we approach our representative democracy. If we want to make local elections more equitable and representative, the real solution is to cultivate knowledge, trust, inclusion, and understanding. We need to teach our children about the Municipal Code like we teach them about the Constitution — not that we do a bang-up job of that either. And we need to remind folks that changing the occupant of the White House won’t fix the pothole in front of their house or get a new park built in their neighborhood.

But if it makes you feel better, go ahead and move the elections. It probably won’t hurt anything. It will just be a colossal waste of time.

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Peter Allen

Peter Allen

Rehabilitated Public Servant, Communications Specialist, Arts Advocate, Husband, Dogfather