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On Heels of District Elections, Santa Barbara Now Weighing Switch to Even-Year Municipal Voting

Proponents say change might boost voter turnout — but could also shorten, lengthen some terms during transition

Some members of the Santa Barbara City Council are exploring a possible switch to even-year elections from the city’s longtime practice of voting in odd-numbered years. Voters would have the final say on whether that’s a good idea.
Some members of the Santa Barbara City Council are exploring a possible switch to even-year elections from the city’s longtime practice of voting in odd-numbered years. Voters would have the final say on whether that’s a good idea. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Fresh off a switch to district elections for its city council, the City of Santa Barbara may move to even-year elections in an attempt to increase voter turnout.

Santa Barbara has traditionally held its municipal elections in odd-numbered years, separate from presidential, national and state voting so local candidates and issues would not get lost on a long ballot.

But now that Santa Barbara is moving to district elections this November, some council members believe local elections should fall on even years.

“There is a hugely different turnout between presidential and gubernatorial elections and odd-year elections,” Councilman Gregg Hart told Noozhawk.

“My sense is there is a growing consensus that we have to make this change. The real question is how do you do it?”

Hart said he plans to bring the matter to an upcoming council agenda for a broad discussion and vote to put it on the November ballot.

As of this month, the city is divided into six districts based on population. Voter registration varies widely, from 4,350 registered voters in the Westside District #3 of the adopted map to 10,328 voters for District 4, which includes the Riviera, eastern San Roque and Eucalyptus Hill neighborhoods.

The districts were intentionally drawn to have a majority population of Latino eligible voters, because of the California Voting Rights Act lawsuit settlement that’s forcing the city to make the switch from electing council members at large.

Since council elections will now take place in districts only, not citywide, voter turnout is expected to be significantly lower than in the past. Only the mayor’s election will remain a citywide vote.

In the last City Council race, in 2013, 38 percent of the 46,106 registered voters cast ballots.

Voters would have to amend the city charter to move to even-year elections. In 2007, they rejected a proposed charter amendment to do just that, largely because the change would have required some council members to serve for a fifth year — one more than their four-year terms.

The same issue would arise this time; to move to even-year elections, council members would have to serve one less or more year.

Hart said “the context is very different” now. He hopes to get the matter on the November ballot so an even-year election could take place in 2016.

If the effort succeeds, his term and those of Councilmen Frank Hotchkiss and Harwood “​Bendy” White would end after three years. If the council waited until 2018 to start the even-year elections, the three would get an extra year.

Mayor Helene Schneider said the council needs to discuss whether to put even-year elections on the ballot. She said she is leaning toward extending the council members’ terms by a year, similar to what happened in Ventura when that city moved to an even-year cycle. Los Angeles is considering a similar move, also in an attempt to increase voter turnout.

“The timing is probably good,” Schneider said. “It is worth having the discussion.”

Like Hart, she said she expects voters to support the change this time, because there’s a new context and, unlike in 2007, the change would be motivated by increasing turnout and not by saving money.

Schneider, however, does differ from Hart on one aspect. She wonders whether the even-year election question should go on the November 2016 ballot instead, since turnout will be higher in next year’s presidential election.

“We are going to have this conversation very soon,” she said. “What’s important is that issues related to changing the charter should be transparent. The timing is right to have the discussion of even-year elections now.”

Schneider recently announced that she is running for Congress, with hopes of succeeding Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara. If she’s elected next year, the municipal elections change would not affect her directly, but it would leave the mayor’s seat in limbo since the term is not up until 2017.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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