On the March 2020 Ballot: Uncertainty!

The upcoming Beverly Hills city council election will be a departure from the past. Changes include new vote-by-mail ballots, new ballot-marking devices, and even an 11-day window to cast a ballot. The biggest change though is the consolidated election. For the first time our local contest will share the ballot with the statewide primary and some voters will be surprised. In addition to the five declared city council candidates we can be sure that uncertainty, too, will be on the Beverly Hills ballot!

The Past: Small Town Style Low-Key Elections

This election season we have a handful of familiar faces in the running for city council. They’ve got the name recognition. They have establishment backing from peers in business, law or medicine. They are pillars of the community. They are active in philanthropy and sit on nonprofit boards of directors.

There are lesser-known candidates that run too. To qualify for our municipal ballot a candidate need only be a US citizen at least 18 years of age who can garner the support of twenty (!) registered voters. That is a low barrier-to-entry that allows unknown and even unserious candidates to qualify.

Insurgent victories are hardly unknown. Indeed a determined candidate with comfortable shoes can touch many of the just by knocking on doors. And our two local papers will run an ad for less than a thousand bucks. But it is the best-known, best-connected candidates who generally fare the best at the ballot box.

That’s because money matters. The barrier-to-entry may be low but the cost of victory is steep: from campaign kick-off to last-minute mailer blitz the credible campaign will spend perhaps thirty or forty thousand dollars. Bets on the favorites in our local horse race tend to attract short odds (though an incumbent does occasionally take a tumble).

In past elections victory came with less than two thousand votes. Turnout rarely topped 25% of registered voters. But that’s where the similarity between past elections and the upcoming March 3rd city council election ends. Our city council election this time shares the ballot with the statewide primary whereas past elections were conducted ‘off-cycle’ or in years where there was no statewide election. For example, our current city council took shape after the 2017 municipal election; under the old system there was no local election scheduled for 2016 or 2018.

State law now mandates that low turnout localities (like Beverly Hills) ‘consolidate’ our local elections with general elections starting this year with the March 3rd 2020 contest. What does sharing the ballot with a statewide primary mean for local candidates? Uncertainty! What adds to the uncertainty for Beverly Hills city council candidates this year? Read on!

The Future: Less Predictable Outcomes

Uncertainty is on the ballot for city council candidates for a few reasons. Turnout historically has been low but it will spike this year because our March 3rd city council election coincides with ‘Super Tuesday.’ Low levels of community engagement with city hall means that some of those voters will look at the city council race and see no familiar name. And of course candidates have no local polling data. They fly blind into this election like all others.

Turnout. For one thing turnout will be much higher this election. In recent years Beverly Hills hit a low-ebb when it comes to turnout at the polls. Where nearly half of all registered voters cast a ballot fifty years ago, in 2017 only 25% of registered voters cast a ballot. That was the product of a remarkable, and remarkably consistent, drop in turnout in Beverly Hills municipal elections.

Beverly Hills turnout 1952-2017 chart
Turnout shows a half-century of decline with occasional spikes when a local issue stirred voter interest. High variability may be a thing of the past after the California Voter Participation Rights Act.

Historically those who rent housing tend to turn out in numbers disproportionately small relative to their overall numbers in the city. That at least has been the assumption; we don’t have any good numbers on it. We do know that tenants tend to be younger than those who own their housing in the city. Younger voters as a rule tend to turn out at a lower rate. We know from the census that turnover is higher in rental housing (compared to owner-occupied housing) and instability among renting households may make tenants feel less connected to local affairs.

Regardless, with our city council elections hereafter sharing the statewide ballot we will definitely see that downward trend in voter turnout sharply reversed. This year we may even see record turnout because many voters will be especially motivated to cast a ballot in this primary election. But how many Beverly Hills primary election voters will have thought for a minute about the local city council race?

Low levels of engagement. Historically Beverly Hills has been characterized by low levels of public engagement with city hall. We have plenty of active, civic-minded residents, of course, but relatively few took an interest in local affairs. City hall did little to reach out to touch the public. Until recently the city’s media office was more likely to circle the wagons in a crisis rather than actually communicate about city business. That has changed, but it will take time to stoke public interest in city business.

The prevailing low level of engagement means that some proportion of voters will go to the polls this election without an understanding about local affairs or much familiarity with the candidates. Undoubtedly some will look over the ballot for the city council and see no familiar face despite two longtime incumbents in the race. For whom will they vote?

What makes this election different in this regard is that in the past those less-interested voters simply didn’t bother to vote. Now they come to the polls because it’s Super Tuesday and the statewide primary is on the ballot. For those voters in particular there will be a gulf between their attention to larger issues and their interest in city business. Will they choose to tap the woman or the man, or the young or the seasoned, or will they perhaps choose the first two names in the city council race?

That is a real concern for one candidate in particular who won’t appear to voters on the first screen of candidates in the voting booth. (The has filed a lawsuit to force a change to the touchscreen interface.)

There is no local polling. Polling data would significantly inform any serious candidate’s campaign strategy. Which voters are warming to the candidate? Which messages seem to resonate? How could the campaign recalibrate? Not least, polling data would mitigate the uncertainty heading into the city council election.

But there is no local polling data because there is no local telephone canvas of voters. Aside from limited data from digital ad spending, perhaps, these campaigns operate in the dark. That confers some advantage to the campaigns managed by experience hands who can borrow from a playbook of the past: focus on the ‘high-propensity’ voter. When candidates’ supporters walk with a clipboard they have identified those voters more likely to vote.

Focusing on high-propensity voters is logical because those voters more reliably go to the polls. (It also represents better bang for the campaign buck.) However in an election with vastly higher turnout that strategy won’t be as effective: winning over voters who are already attuned to local affairs won’t begin to close the deal with those who voted irregularly but will certainly vote in March.

How will half of the city’s households vote? Candidates get feedback from campaign forums and walking door-to-door but that doesn’t give much insight into the intent of the tenant-voter. Those who rent apartments generally don’t see candidates walking door-to-door. Historically they have avoided multifamily areas because connecting with tenants is difficult. Front doors are locked and there is no homeowner association to make an introduction. Tenants seem less-likely to attend a forum too.

But on Super Tuesday tenants will go to the polls. How will they vote if they have not had an opportunity to connect with the candidates? We are more likely to know them through a blitz of mailers rather than get a feel for the person.

California Voter Participation Rights Act Made the Difference

The intent of the California Voter Participation Rights Act (SB 415) was to boost turnout in local races was. The one-page critical legislation consolidated our municipal election with the primary ballot and that, principally, is what has injected much uncertainty into our March 3rd city council election.

What difference will SB 415 make? We can guesstimate the March turnout by looking back to the June 2016 presidential primary election. In that election fully 42% of Beverly Hills voters cast a ballot. That represented 59% of registered Democrats and 35% of registered Republicans. (Democrats had a contested primary as we do this time again.) Compare that relatively high turnout with the next year’s off-cycle local election where fewer than 25% of voters went to the polls to elect city council candidates.

Super Tuesday 2020 will likely eclipse the turnout in 2016 but we have no means to gauge what that means for our local election. So expect more mailbox flyers, more lawn signs and more angst on the local hustings!