Foon Rhee

How democracy is growing in California cities

Voters line up on Nov. 8 at the Columbarium in San Francisco. A new study says that on some measures, democracy is growing in California cities.
Voters line up on Nov. 8 at the Columbarium in San Francisco. A new study says that on some measures, democracy is growing in California cities. New York Times

With so much poor-mouthing of our democracy lately, it’s good to see a more encouraging take.

California Common Cause recently published its first Municipal Democracy Index, which found some notable progress for small-democracy among the state’s 482 cities.

City councils elected at-large can be less representative, especially of overlooked neighborhoods, minority groups and the politically powerless. But between 2011 and 2016, the number of California municipalities with more representative district elections nearly doubled from 31 to 59. That’s about 12 percent of the 482 cities in California, including many larger ones.

The switch has accelerated since the 2001 California Voting Rights Act, which bans using at-large elections if they disenfranchise minority voters. As a result of lawsuits filed under that law, another 16 cities will have district elections in the next few years, according to the study.

Sacramento elects its council members from districts, and after the 2020 census those districts will be drawn for the first time by an independent citizens commission that voters approved in November.

Another advance noted in the study: Fewer cities are holding elections in odd-numbered years, or in even years on dates different from statewide elections. Since 2000, those with such “off-cycle” elections – typically with much lower voter turnout – have dropped from 37 percent to 24 percent of all cities.

Because of a law that took effect last year prohibiting these elections if they result in turnout at least 25 percent lower than statewide elections, another 31 cities plan to sync their balloting with either the statewide June primary or November general election.

“Municipal democracy is in a period of exciting transition,” says Nicolas Heidorn, author of the study and policy and legislative counsel for Common Cause.

But on other measures, there is more work to do.

For instance, nearly all cities allow council candidates to be elected even if they don’t win a majority of the vote, as long as they win the most votes. So in a crowded field, a candidate rejected by most voters can still win. While plurality voting is state law for cities that don’t have their own charters, it’s not very democratic.

Twenty larger cities require the winner to get a clear majority – 16 in a separate runoff election, like Sacramento, and four in an “instant runoff” where voters rank their choices.

Another key finding in the study is that most cities don’t limit campaign contributions, which allows big donors to have outsized influence. Unlike most states, California doesn’t have statewide limits in local elections. Only 22 percent of cities have adopted limits, ranging from $100 per contributor to $4,200. Sacramento’s limit is $3,300 per person in the mayor’s race and $1,650 in council races.

Sacramento is among seven cities that have some kind of public financing on the books, which can help level the playing field. But it stopped funding it in 2010.

There’s also a lack of transparency: Only 32 percent of cities post campaign finance information online, where it’s much more accessible to voters who want to know who is funding candidates and ballot measures.

While the presidential race dominated attention last fall, local elections can have an immediate and direct impact, particularly since fewer votes can decide winners and losers. Just ask supporters of a Sacramento County transportation sales tax and a Sacramento city schools parcel tax. Both measures barely fell short of the two-thirds majority needed – and about 10 percent of voters didn’t bother to vote on them.

That’s why the health of local democracy is so important. It’s improving, but another boost wouldn’t hurt.

By the numbers

How California’s 482 cities stack up on measures of democracy:

Election system

12% by district

88% at-large

Voting date

76% on cycle

24% off cycle

Voting method

4% majority

96% plurality

Contribution limits

22% yes

78% no

Online campaign reports

32% yes

68% no

Source: California Common Cause