A state law taking effect in 2018 requires odd-year elected boards to shift to even years if voter participation is significantly higher then, but in Stanislaus County the elections office has provided figures that would let many odd-year elections stay put.
In a letter to Modesto City Schools dated Feb. 13, County Clerk Lee Lundrigan lays out the requirements of SB 415 and provides voter turnout numbers showing the district as exempt from the law. But Lundrigan’s calculations include lower-turnout June primaries alongside November voting numbers, muting the disparity between even and odd years.
That was not the plan, said Jacob O’Neill, district representative for state Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, the bill’s author. O’Neill did background research for the bill.
“Our intent was to use the last four November general elections,” O’Neill said Friday. The bill mandates a change to even-year elections if the participation rate for district races is 25 percent lower than the average of the previous four “statewide general elections.” O’Neill said Lundrigan appears to be citing the wrong section of election code in including June primaries in the mix.
The law mandates boards change by 2018, or a plan formally in place by then to change by 2022. Turlock Unified notified its voters last week it is switching to even-year elections starting in 2018.
Our intent was to use the last four November general elections.
Repeated calls to the California Secretary of State’s office asking for clarification received a one-line email response Friday: “The bill references ‘statewide general’ elections.”
Lundrigan, reached by phone Friday, said the law did not specify how many years to go back. “I felt they would want the more recent period,” she said. “We can certainly give them more years if they want them,” she added. “It’s their call.”
By-district counts in years the district did not hold an election is far easier for her office to compute and the numbers are provided without charge as a service, Lundrigan said. “They need to go through their own legal counsel. I am not giving any legal advice,” she stressed.
“Whatever the choice of each political subdivision, we will support them in holding their election,” Lundrigan said.
Whatever the choice of each political subdivision, we will support them in holding their election.
The timing of even and odd years figures in the controversy around the Modesto City Schools division into by-area seats for its seven-member board.
As part of the split, the district set its next election dates as 2017 for four seats in the north and east areas of the district, and 2019 for west and south Modesto – the most heavily Latino areas of the city.
The divisions were made to comply with the California Voting Rights Act, meant to increase representation for minority communities. Advocates for the Latino community protested the delay at the meeting to finalize the split last week.
Asked at the meeting whether there would be a further delay with a switch to even year elections, Modesto City Schools attorney Roman Muñoz pointed to the Stanislaus County letter and said it did not appear that would be necessary.
The letter does not provide four November general election results for the district, which includes roughly half of Stanislaus County voters. Using countywide statistics available online for ballpark figures, here is the difference between the two sets of voter turnouts.
In 2015, countywide voter participation was 22 percent. The four November general elections preceding that election averaged 59 percent, a 37 percent difference – switch required. The two June primaries and two November general elections preceding that election averaged 42 percent turnout, a 20 percent difference – no change to even years required. Again, these are countywide figures. Every school district will have its own voter count.
For decades, Stanislaus County school districts elected boards in odd years when, conventional wisdom held, their races would not get overlooked in long lists of state initiatives, Congressional contests and state races.
The so-called down-ballot races do see a drop off, but in a statement timed to the bill’s signing in 2015, Hueso said research showed voter turnout in off-cycle municipal elections was 25-36 percent lower than elections held during statewide races.