Guest Opinion: Why local elections in even years make sense
Bravo to the Palo Alto City Council for taking up the suggestion to make a simple change in process that could save the city big money for years to come — a possible million dollars over the next 10 years.
The simple change is to move council elections to even-numbered years, thus reducing the cost to the city of the election material and voting process.
I personally am convinced that even-year elections are superior for local residents, and that Palo Alto's tradition of odd-year elections (embodied in its City Charter) is, well, odd. It is wasteful and reduces participation in the vote.
I speak with some experience, having been directly involved in local elections for much of my adult life, as a former member of the Palo Alto Board of Education and as a Palo Alto City Council member in addition to my present role as a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
Here's why I suggested to the council members recently that we should consider changing years:
First, changing to even-year elections saves money.
The City of Palo Alto shares the cost of an election with all of the other jurisdictions having elections at the same time — from local bonds and parcel taxes to federal and state general elections to special districts such as the county water district.
Put simply, there are more elections in even-numbered years and the cost is spread more widely across cities and the county. In odd-year stand-alone elections, the city has to bear a greater share of the cost, and sometimes the entire cost.
If Palo Alto shifted to even-numbered years it would save around 67 percent of it's current costs, or about $200,000 every two years by consolidating its council elections with the even-year state and federal general elections in November.
The cost to Palo Alto for the 2009 council election was $295,000. By contrast, the upcoming 2011 council election (with four seats open) would be only $93,000 if the election was moved to 2012.
What could $200,000 buy? This past year, the county contributed more than $200,000 for senior-nutrition programs, including Avenidas, Stevenson House and the Cubberley sites. Given the state budget crisis, and the county's challenges for voluntarily funding these programs, they are always in danger of being cut. In fact, San Jose's City Council cut most of the senior-nutrition sites, but has now given a six-month reprieve while a Council of Aging study is undertaken. (I serve as co-chair of the study.)
A second and very major reason to consider shifting to even years is the level of public participation.
Changing to even-year elections results in higher turnouts. More people vote in the even-year general elections, which include electing our president and governor, than in odd-year municipal stand-alone elections.
I'm not talking small numbers here. There's a huge disparity.
In the November 2008 U.S. presidential election, 31,566 Palo Altans voted on the citywide Measure N.
In the November 2009 City Council election, just 14,308 Palo Altans voted on the citywide Measure A.
We could get twice the participation by consolidating the election with the statewide presidential and gubernatorial elections.
To graphically illustrate this, is a chart of the difference in odd- versus even-year elections from 2000 forward is available on the Weekly's community website, www.PaloAltoOnline.com. This was done by Palo Altans' Bob Harrington and Joe Villareal, and is compiled directly from county documents. Their data indicates clearly that, for the last 10 years, voters have turned-out in double the numbers recorded for the even versus the odd years.
Finally, based on my personal experience, there is greater press coverage of even-year elections, including the local issues and candidates. There is far more "buzz" and interest in gubernatorial and presidential election years than during odd-numbered ones.
While some could possibly see this as a drawback, I see it as a great advantage to our voting public. Given that we have had even years with twice the voter turnout, it seems a clear choice.
I hope the council members next Monday night will see the advantages of even years, and vote to place a simple charter change on the November ballot — so our city voters can decide when they would prefer to vote. Given the dollars that could be saved , a far greater voter turnout and heightened public interest, I believe our voters would welcome the opportunity to weigh in on this major chance to change the process of elections.
One last point: with what seem to be sound reasons for changing our voting process, and giving the public a chance to vote, what would, or could be, roadblocks to a City Council vote to do so? Likely explanations might be that the timing is wrong, or another initiative should take precedence. Using such reasons to sidestep is unfair to our citizens. We have had separate initiatives on nearly every ballot for the last 10 years.
And, if concerns linger about sitting council members having extended terms, I would comment that the current members are working well together, have very full plates to savor, and for $600/month, we get a lot of value.
I urge the City Council to give voters a choice — a voice on when they'd like to vote.
Let the public make the decision.
City Council Election Turnout - November 2001 to November 2009: www.paloaltoonline.com
Voter Turnout - November 2001 to November 2009: www.paloaltoonline.com
Vote By Mail Preference 2003 to 2009: www.paloaltoonline.com
Odd/Even Election Year Comparison: www.paloaltoonline.com
Liz Kniss is a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors who has served both on the Palo Alto City Council (including serving as mayor twice) and the Palo Alto Board of Education. She can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.