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Tim Myers: I guess turnout was worse than I had expected

Myers’ Musing

Posted: June 27, 2009 7:41 p.m.
Updated: June 28, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Assemblyman Cameron Smyth used to tell a self-deprecating story concerning his first (unsuccessful) effort to run for a seat on the Santa Clarita City Council.

In that disappointment, during which the current Assemblyman came in fourth by a rather significant 944 votes, he described how he would run into friends after the election.

"I thought you were going to win," the friends would say airily.

And then the zinger: "I guess I should have voted."

Now, Assemblyman Smyth does not know if 950 friends actually showing up at the polls that year might have put him over the top, but he certainly felt that some type of increased turnout would have assisted him in his role of challenger.

Not so the honest incumbent. When asked about poor turnout during the 2006 election when Laurene Weste, Marsha McLean and Frank Ferry recaptured their seats, Ferry stated words to the effect that a low turnout indicated contentment on the part of the citizenry with the status quo.

Well, if low turnout equates to citizen contentment, the numbers indicate that Santa Clarita may be the most contented city in the state of California.

In March 2002, several academics produced a report on local election turnout in California for the Public Policy Institute of California.

The researchers found that turnout in "off-cycle" November municipal elections - those in which major state, congressional or presidential issues are not on the ballot - averaged about 30 percent.

When gubernatorial, senatorial or presidential issues were on the ballot with municipal races, the average turnout nearly doubled, the study found.

Elections for Santa Clarita City Council are definitely off-cycle, as they are held in April every other year.

How does Santa Clarita stack up against the average? Excluding the 1987 election that formed the city (41-percent turnout) and the 1992 election that included a "no growth" measure (32-percent turnout), the remaining elections garnered an anemic mean of just under 17-percent turnout with little variation, a full 13-percentage points below the state average.

Do we see a long-term decline in the numbers caused by the increased "contentment" of the voters?

Actually, no. In 1990, in the second election ever held in city history, turnout plunged from the halcyon number of 41 percent to less than 18 percent, popping back to 32 percent in 1992 with the no-growth ballot measure.

Since then, turnout has declined for a couple of cycles below the mean and then suddenly, and somewhat inexplicably, popped back up to above the mean,

Reacting to Mayor Ferry's comment concerning contentment, Alan Ferdman, Canyon Country activist and a whispered potential candidate for the City Council, took to the blogosphere and stated the city should do everything in its power to increase turnout in the 2010 election.

The city already does plenty, sending out vote-by-mail applications to every registered voter in the city (and sometimes in the county due to overlapping ZIP codes), making it extremely easy to vote by mail.

However, the city also unknowingly conspires to perhaps depress turnout by providing candidates with extremely detailed voting records, so that they target dear funds for mailers and phone banking to those who have voted in at least three out of the last four elections, meaning new residents and prior non-voters will receive no campaign materials and thus must take proactive steps to make sure they vote.

Now continued low turnout may not indicate voter contentment, but it certainly benefits incumbents.

Remember, they already got elected once with that limited pool, which makes them more likely to get re-elected. It also limits the amount of money necessary to run a campaign, since they need only appeal to a relatively small audience.

Ferdman and many others believe that increased turnout would constitute a good thing, but the City Council never raises the possibility of doing the "one" thing that could double turnout and perhaps increase it by a factor of four, according to the research on behalf of the Public Policy Institute: Move the election from April to even-numbered Novembers to coincide with statewide and presidential elections.

Before one sees a conspiracy of incumbents to keep turnout low by holding off cycle elections, one must examine another finding by the study that the unassailability of incumbency gets even stronger when the municipality holds its election concurrently with a statewide or presidential election.

So please refer back to last week's column concerning the numerical unassailability of incumbency. Incumbents win in off-cycle elections. Incumbents win in concurrent elections.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident and CPA who thinks numbers hold the key to everything. His column represents his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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