Posted by rflacks on:
Talking and thinking about last week’s Santa Barbara city election, hearing many conflicting notions about how to evaluate the results—I thought I’d share my own reflections.
On one level, the outcome couldn’t have been more predictable. The mayor had token opposition and won handily. The two incumbent councilmembers were re-elected (Bendy White and Frank Hotchkiss) and the third victor, Gregg Hart, was returning to the council where he had served not so long ago. Voter turnout was only 37%--a completely predictable figure given the extremely ‘off year’ character of the election (with not even an interesting ballot measure to draw voters).
All predictable, but not at all the whole story.
First, turnout. This was an all-mail ballot, a process advocated as a way to increase voter participation. And that looks to have been the case. The turnout in Santa Barbara was much higher than in many widely reported local races across the country – and the highest of any city in California. In New York City, less than a quarter of the voters turned out, for example. Our turnout here was the same as in the widely reported New Jersey governor’s race. The turnout numbers here are nothing to be proud of, but they suggest that voter participation improves with access to and convenience of voting. All-mail balloting is a good step in that direction.
Another predictable election pattern: all things being equal, the most likely voters are older, propertied, white… and relatively conservative. In the recent election here, about 6% of registered voters under 30 went to the polls. About 3/4 of the participating voters were over 56. Of the 8000 registered Latino voters in the city, 15% voted. These disproportions are typical in off-year elections.
Despite these disproportions, the election results at first glance don’t suggest a particularly polarized town. Both Bendy and Gregg were backed by a broad spectrum of progressive organizations, but ran first and second in every precinct, from the most to least affluent. Even the upper income precincts tend to be Democratic.
But Frank Hotchkiss, a staunch Republican whose public positions put him at odds with the city’s environmentally conscious consensus and who sometimes wants to afflict the poor and comfort the comfortable, ran a strong third in the upper income precincts that ring the central city. Megan Diaz Alley, with no prior visible public recognition, ran a strong third in all the central city precincts, where young and minority and renter voters live. Hotchkiss carried the election overall in part because the turnout in the precincts he won was 10 -15% higher than in the Alley precincts. Alley came in fifth, 150 votes behind David Landecker, who has an exemplary record of service to progressive organizations and causes, and was endorsed by Helene Schneider, Das Williams and the Sierra club, among others. Landecker and Alley split 11,000 votes so it’s hard to avoid the assumption that Hotchkiss would not have been elected had that vote not been split.
In the post election conversation, some are angry that Megan, so inexperienced and young and untried, ran, undermining the opportunity to elect David Landecker, whose knowledge and leadership would have served the community well—and forcing us to live with another term for Frank Hotchkiss. But there were important reasons why Megan was encouraged to run (starting before David decided to enter), and why she got a wider range of endorsements than he did. If we are to have city government that represents the needs and values of the city as a whole, it’s important to have council members who are in fact representative. Megan on the council would help make it more representative. The fact that her experience bridges environmental and equity concerns , coupled with her energy and quick intelligence, made her attractive.,
The turnout in this election would likely have been quite a bit lower if Megan had not run. Consider this: Megan Alley got virtually the same number of votes as David Landecker. She spent $8 a vote, while he spent almost $16. And she ran third in five precincts, while David never reached third in any precinct. Her candidacy helped mobilize a grassroots ground campaign, organized by groups like CAUSE and the Democratic Party. We might imagine that the chance to elect a young, promising Latina inspired the enthusiasm needed for such an effort. At her election night party, there was a lot of buzz about her potential as a community leader going forward.
Some of us veterans of local progressive politics have long wanted to be able to create a viable and diverse slate that can help spark voter turnout, and that can avoid being undermined by split voting. The Democratic Party County Central Committee, whose members are largely elected by popular vote, has taken the lead in recent years in creating a framework for candidate development and endorsement that has helped us get to that goal. Still, as in this election, some in elective office feel empowered to compete with that process for reasons not always evident. The result in this case was lost opportunity and, worse, ill feeling, anger, division in the ranks.
I’m hoping that some of that ill feeling can get resolved. And given the healthy ambition of many talented people in the community for continuing careers in elective office, it would be wonderful—maybe even really important—that a process be devised that can promote coalition and cooperation rather than fracturing and faction.