Improving Voter Turnout and Fair Representation in Ventura

Sunday, March 16th

Ventura County Star

By Marcos Vargas and David Rodriguez

Paid subscribers can read the original article on the Ventura County Star website here.

The city of Ventura faces a voting crisis.  Voter turnout is steadily declining in the city, reaching some of its lowest levels in history.  Every year the city council and school board are less representative of the rising diversity of our community.  Ventura’s elections lack meaningful competition, with new challengers rarely being elected and incumbents sometimes running unopposed.

At the root of the problem is the city’s odd-year elections.  Every other city in Ventura County holds its elections on even-numbered years like 2010 and 2012, when county, state and federal elected offices and propositions are at stake and voters are tuned in and more informed.  Ventura holds its elections in odd-numbered years like 2011 and 2013, leading to abysmally low voter turnout.  The numbers speak for themselves:  In 2012, 70% of voters in Oxnard cast ballots, 71% in Santa Paula and Port Hueneme, 81% in Camarillo and 83% in Ojai.  But in 2013, only 26% of Ventura’s registered voters chose our city’s leadership.  Although nearly three times as many Venturans voted in 2012, the city council and school board were not on the ballot, leaving most to stay at home the following year when those offices came up for a vote.

Venturans are not lazy, ignorant or apathetic.  Our high voter turnout in state and federal elections during even-numbered years proves that.  But holding local elections separately on odd-numbered years results in voter fatigue.  Working families have enough on their plate: putting in long hours on the job before coming home to cook, clean, pay bills, and raise children.  Researching issues to be an informed voter takes serious work and when voters are targeted by political campaigns every year, they often feel frustrated and decide to sit out of the less important elections.  Unfortunately, as cable TV replaces the nightly local news and national blogs replace local newspapers, less and less attention is paid to city issues. 

The disparities in voter turnout between the city’s wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods are widened during these odd-year elections.  For example, in precinct 9084 in the hills of Ondulando, perhaps the most affluent neighborhood in Ventura, voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election was 85%.  Voter turnout in precinct 9510 on the lower Avenue, the lowest income section of the city, was 67%.  That difference is enough to give anyone pause.  But that gap widens beyond belief in an odd-year city council election.  Last year in the Ondulando precinct, voter turnout was 39%, while in the Avenue precinct it was only 18%.  While these two neighborhoods had roughly the same number of registered voters, the wealthier community had over twice the representation in the last city election.  Is it any wonder not a single city councilmember lives west of downtown?  Is anyone surprised that in a city where one in three residents is Latino that the city council has never had a Latino representative?

Not only is the solution simple, but it saves the city money.  The City Council is considering a reform of Ventura’s charter, which would allow city elections to be held alongside county, state and federal elections on even years.  This change would save the cost of keeping polling booths open, mailing and counting ballots every other year, saving tens of thousands of dollars for both the city and the school district.

One can only wonder what motive city and school leaders might possibly have for actively choosing to spend taxpayer money maintaining an election system that puts up barriers to voter participation.  This means an active choice to have less funding for parks, libraries, pothole repair, public safety, and our children’s classrooms for no purpose other than to preserve low voter turnout.

The reality is there is no sinister motive.  As far as anyone knows, there is no conspiracy to suppress voter turnout or to disenfranchise Ventura’s low-income and Latino neighborhoods.  The city holds its elections on odd years simply because that is the way it has always been done before.  But there comes a time to reexamine old practices and throw out those that uphold inefficiency and injustice.  We urge the City Council and voters of Ventura to support charter reform moving the city’s elections to even-numbered years.  Today, Ventura might fairly be called the least voter-friendly city in the region.  But through a simple reform, we can save money while creating a more active and inclusive democracy in our community.

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