Five Lessons from California Elections


2011 is an off-year for statewide elections, but this week saw local elections for city councils, mayors and other local offices and measures across California.

The most prominent elections took place in San Francisco, where interim mayor Ed Lee was running for a full term.

The results of some races have not been finalized, but there are lessons to be learned from these local contests.

Here are five such lessons.

1. Liberals won't go for pension reform unless it's backed by unions.

The San Francisco elections offered two competing measures to save money on pensions -- the union-backed Proposition C and the union-opposed Proposition D.

Prop D, backed by public defender and mayoral candidate Jeff Adachi, would have saved more money on pensions, but it lost.

Prop C, which was backed labor as a less severe alternative to Prop D, won. The labor endorsement mattered.

This is an interesting and timely political message because Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing for pension cutbacks. Many in labor are opposing him.

The San Francisco election result, if anything, would strengthen labor's hand.

2. San Francisco opposes reform like the rest of the state.

In a dispiriting outcome, San Francisco voters on Tuesday turned down -- by a 2 to 1 margin -- a proposal, Proposition E, to permit the board of supervisors to amend measures put on the ballot by the board itself.

This proposal offered badly needed flexibility -- the type of flexibility that is badly needed at the state level, where initiatives are also not subject to amendment.

San Franciscans often express the belief that the state would be governable if the rest of California thought and voted like they do.

But in turning down Prop E, San Franciscans sided with anti-tax activists and others who refuse to give elected officials the freedom to negotiate and fix problems.

Instead, San Francisco, like the rest of California, prefers to lock in its policy preferences by the initiative ballot -- even when those preferences make the system so much harder to manipulate.

3. Money can't buy you turnout.

A special election to replace Janice Hahn on the Los Angeles City Council sparked an expensive campaign -- more than $2 million was spent -- but not voter interest.

Just over 16,000 of the more than 100,000 registered voters in the council district bothered to show up.The LA Times didn't even carry a story on the race in the election day paper.

But that's not the bad part.

The bad part is that there will have to be another election -- a runoff between the top two votegetters, neither of whom drew as many as 5,000 votes in an election to represent more than 200,000 people.

4. Who says inland California hates taxes?

California commentators, including this blogger, often portray inland California as implacably opposed to tax increases -- and portray coastal California as a place where people want their taxes raised.

But the elections a different look. Liberal, coastal San Francisco voted down a sales tax increase. Meanwhile, Voters in the small city of Oakdale, in the center of California near Modesto (Bay Area residents have probably driven through on their way to Yosemite), voted to raise their local sales tax by a half-cent over three years to stall cuts in local services.

5. Most people don't care.

Off-year elections often have low turnouts, and Tuesday's contests were no exception. Even the high-profile San Francisco races drew turns out of less than one third of registered voters.

Let us know what you think. Comment below, send us your thoughts via Twitter @PropZero or add your comment to our Facebook page.

Here are the results from the City.

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