The very foundation of our democracy rests on the principle of majority rule, the idea that we are governed by those who earn the most votes in free and fair elections. But what if I told you that you could win an election with less than 40% of the vote? How about winning with 20%? What about only 15%? Is that what our founders intended? Would that be fair?
I don’t believe that it is.
In 2014, only 14% of registered voters in Santa Clarita cast ballots for City Council candidates — only 15,781 votes from 111,661 registered voters. Council members Laurene Weste and Marsha McLean won re-election that year with 6,210 votes and 5,677 votes, respectively.
But local elections for the council changed dramatically in 2016. It was agreed that council elections would be held in November, instead of April, as part of a settlement stemming from a California Voting Rights Act lawsuit. In 2016, 127,511 votes were cast for City Council candidates by 117,972 registered voters (each voter was able to vote for two candidates). This represented a massive 800% increase in the number of votes cast, and the significant jump in participation was a major step toward ensuring a healthy democratic process for local elections.
But it was not enough. Even though more Santa Claritans were participating in the process and still are to this day, local elected officials are winning with votes from only a fraction of the population.
This November, Mayor Cameron Smyth was reelected to the City Council with 56,919 votes (39.4% of registered voters), the most ever for a City Council candidate. Jason Gibbs also won a seat on the council, with 29,474 votes (20.4% of registered voters). Here is breakdown across the council as a whole:
Cameron Smyth (2020): 56,919 39.4%
Laurene Weste (2018): 25,603 20.5%
Jason Gibbs (2020): 29,474 20.4%
Marsha McLean (2018): 25,273 20.2%
Bill Miranda (2018): 18,885 15.1%
Each of the above council members unequivocally won their seats — I am not suggesting otherwise. But even though Mr. Smyth received far more votes than any candidate previously, more than 60% of registered voters in Santa Clarita did not vote for him. Looking at recent election results, we see these low percentages are not a new phenomenon.
There are a number of changes we could make to our City Council elections that would result in winning candidates earning a higher percentage of the vote, thereby achieving a more representative local government. Some of these changes we could implement now. Others would require changes to state law.
The first change would be to implement district-based elections. The city was already committed to transitioning to district-based elections earlier this year, but suspended the transition due to impacts on public gatherings from the COVID-19 pandemic. We already elect our College of the Canyons trustees, local school board governing members, and SCV Water Agency board of directors with district-based elections. This would allow residents the opportunity to vote for someone who represents their interests and community, boosting voter engagement and participation, and would focus the field of candidates that they would choose from. I hope that this new council will resume the process of transitioning to district-based elections for 2022.
Second, City Council candidates could compete in the primary elections to determine who would be on the ballot in the general election in November. This would mean that voters would be casting their vote for a candidate in the general election who had a significant chance of winning, and would again focus the field of candidates that they would be selecting from. This solution does have the added complication of making campaigns longer and more expensive, since candidates would have to compete in the primary and general elections. Unfortunately, this would make the process less accessible for first-time candidates, and therefore not a good solution for our city.
Finally, the city could implement ranked-choice voting for City Council elections. Ranked-choice voting allows voters to rank as many candidates as they want in order of choice — first, second, third, and so on. All first choices are counted, and if a candidate has a majority, then they win, just like any other election. However if nobody has a majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and those voters have their ballot instantly count for their next choice. This process continues until a candidate receives a majority of votes and is declared the winner. Maine uses ranked-choice voting for presidential and state-level elections, and five other states have already chosen to implement it for their elections as well.
The decisions made by the council have a huge impact on our daily lives, from deciding how we are policed to addressing the impacts of the pandemic. And yet, our current system for electing them is clearly not resulting in candidates with a broad base of support in our city, and that needs to be changed.
I believe any of these possible changes could lead to a more representative and responsive local government, and some more than others. The truth though, is that none of them will be implemented without you getting involved and making your voice heard.