On April 15, 2019, the San Diego City Council will be asked to move a citizens’ initiative that is backed by the Mayor from the November 2020 general election to the March 2020 primary. The move would run counter to voter intent in Measure L to schedule all citizens’ initiatives for November elections when the most people vote.
1. What does Measure L Require?
It requires City Council to schedule a citizens’ initiative for the November general election except in limited circumstances. The exact question that voters said Yes to was this:
“Shall the Charter be amended to require qualified citizens’ initiative and referendum measures to be submitted to voters on the next November general election ballot and not at a  primary election , unless the Council chooses to submit the measure to voters prior to that election?”
2. When Can San Diego City Council Choose An Early Election?
Measure L was intended to align city elections with state elections, which require a citizens’ initiative to be placed on the November ballot unless it needs to be decided earlier. Just like at the state level, the option to place something on an earlier ballot was included in Measure L to allow for urgent and compelling questions that can not wait. City Council can trigger that option if there is a clear need to move it earlier.
3. Has California Ever Triggered the Option for an Early Election?
No. California enacted SB202 in 2011, limiting citizens’ initiatives to November elections with the option of an early election if needed. In the past 8 years, the state has never decided that a question was urgent enough to move a citizens’ initiative to an earlier ballot.
4. Has San Diego Ever Triggered the Option for an Early Election?
No. Since the passage of Measure L in 2016, City Council has been asked several times to schedule an early election, and the Council has said No.
5. Is the Mayor’s Initiative Urgent Enough to Trigger the Option?
No. There is no clear need to move the initiative to a ballot that is only 8 months earlier. The city has been talking about an expansion for years, but has not secured the land that would be needed for it. The land is currently leased to Fifth Avenue Landing for another five years.
6. What About Homelessness - Does That Increase the Urgency?
Part of the revenue from the proposed TOT increase in the Mayor’s initiative would pay for homelessness services, but City Council has other revenue to help the homeless right now. In fact, in December 2018, City Council authorized the Mayor to spend $14 million on homelessness and he has yet to spend a dime.
7. What is the Harm of an Early Election?
Voter participation in primary elections is significantly lower than November. That happens in part because people are not aware of the primary election - the city spends $0 to create the awareness - and those that are aware might wait until November because they think that’s when final decisions will be made, since that’s what happens at the state level. As a result, turnout in November can double and has been 5 times higher for young voters and 3 times higher for voters of color. If we care about an inclusive democracy, then we should schedule elections when the most voters participate.
8. Does Anticipated Higher Turnout in March 2020 Matter?
Although turnout in March 2020 might be higher, it is not likely to be anywhere near the turnout in the November 2020 election. In the last three presidential cycles, even in high-stakes and high-energy elections, the turnout gap has been significant, averaging 40 points.
|Year||SD June Primary Turnout||SD Nov General Turnout||Gap|
9. Why Does the Mayor or Anyone Else Want an Early Election for the Initiative?
The Mayor and his allies seem to want an early election so they can pass their TOT / convention center expansion with less votes, taking advantage of a possible court decision (which is still to be decided) that would allow them to win with a simple majority of votes rather than the two-thirds normally required. Proponents of other measures want this initiative on an early ballot so they don’t have to compete with it in November. These are political maneuvers that voters intended to stop with Measure L to keep special interests from manipulating elections.
10. Should City Council Put the Initiative on an Early Ballot?
No. Voters were clear when they overwhelmingly, with a two-thirds vote (66%), cast their ballots in favor of Measure L. They said loud and clear, democracy functions best when the most people vote and that is in November when the Mayor’s initiative is already scheduled.