Santa Clarans face a critical decision. Tuesday’s election will see a ballot measure that aims to amend Santa Clara’s charter, altering the way the city elects local politicians. That measure, Measure A, would split the city into two districts, each represented by three Council Members.
The measure would also put in place Single Transferrable Vote (STV) ranked choice voting. STV systems are designed to work with multi-member election districts where the percentage needed to win—called the quota—is calculated based on the number of votes and the number of seats. There are six different mathematical algorithms for transferring the ranked votes in an STV system, with different ways of weighting and carrying forward different categories of votes.
The organization responsible for a lion’s share of the financing and the organization for the Yes on Measure A campaign is FairVote, a left-wing advocacy group that pushes for ranked choice voting throughout the country. FairVote is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit. Although the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) prohibits nonprofits from participating or intervening in a political campaign supporting or opposing a candidate, it has no such prohibition for ballot initiatives.
The effort to get Measure A passed has been shepherded by FairVote’s Margaret Okuzumi, a Sunnyvale resident, who has donated nearly $23,000 in services. FairVote, based in Maryland, and Texas-based Action Now LLC together have given $92,000 of the $111,000 raised by the Yes on Measure A committee, Better Elections for Santa Clara.
By contrast, the No on A campaign has raised $7,800, virtually all from Santa Clara County residents.
In an effort to discredit the opposition, proponents of the measure have been keen to characterize its opponents as living predominantly outside Santa Clara, a claim that they haven’t substantiated. Meanwhile, proponents point to the fact that Measure A was developed by Santa Clarans.
The Santa Clara Charter Review Committee concocted the measure—with considerable input from Steve Chessin, President of the Sacramento-based Californians for Electoral Reform and a Peninsula resident—and the City Council has endorsed it.
The ballot initiative seeks to be a remedy to a lawsuit claiming Santa Clara’s single-district system violates California Voting Rights Act (CVRA).
Rob Jerdonek, the campaign committee chair for Yes on A, said Measure A provides a “better system for minority representation.” Despite FairVote’s political leanings, he called the measure a “nonpartisan system, a nonpartisan solution.”
“The makeup of the City Council should be in proportion to the voters’ preferences,” he said. “It really is as simple as ranking your candidates—one, two, three.”
But opponents of the measure claim it isn’t the simplest form of ranked choice voting.
John McLemore, one of the leaders of the No on A campaign, said he favors ranked choice voting, but the version selected for Santa Clara is one of the “most complicated forms of ranked choice voting.” Moreover, lumping ranked choice voting in with dividing the city into two districts does the city a disservice and is little more than a ploy, he added. He said dividing the city, the main reason he opposes Measure A, is “in the shadow” of the discussion surrounding ranked choice voting.
McLemore said he is not confident the two-district system will help the city correct a CVRA violation, saying it creates two “mini-me” districts. Further, he said the effort did not come from the Charter Review Committee; it came from the City Council, a claim for which he was unable to provide proof.
“Nobody was even talking about two districts until last year,” he said.
Santa Clara has seen much turnover since the 2016 election following Mayor Lisa Gillmor’s appointment. Many see the measure as an attempt by Gillmor to mold the city in her image.
Several key upper-level city employees have left the city, including the city manager, finance director, city attorney and city clerk. All this amid the Council appointing—and subsequently seeing the election of—Vice Mayor Kathy Watanabe, one of Gillmor’s political allies, and the resignation of her most vocal opposition, Dominic Caserta, who resigned in the face of numerous sexual harassment allegations quick on the heels of his vye for County Supervisor, in which he was a frontrunner.
Opponents of Measure A, Jerdonek said, want to see a district system similar to the one in San Jose—one district for each Council Member. He contests the notion that dividing the city into districts shouldn’t be part of the same measure to institute ranked choice voting.
“Just because it works in San Jose doesn’t mean it will work in Santa Clara,” he said of having a district for each Council Member. “[Districts and ranked choice voting] go together … it’s a balanced approach.”
Claims that opponents of Measure A want to see a district for each Council Member and an at-large mayoral election are not unfounded. McLemore said that is exactly the way the city should be divided if it is going to be divided.
Should the judge who is presiding over the case, Judge Thomas Kuhnle, determine Santa Clara’s system violates the CVRA, he will decide in July whether Measure A ameliorates that violation. Polls are open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.