New Study on City Democracy Shows Changing Landscape

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  • nicolas heidorn
California Common Cause’s inaugural Municipal Democracy Index is a comprehensive survey of the governance, election, and campaign finance practices of all 482 California cities.

California Common Cause today published its inaugural Municipal Democracy Index. The index is a survey of the governance, election, and campaign finance practices of all 482 cities in California. Author Nicolas Heidorn, Policy and Legislative Counsel for Common Cause, noted:

“Municipal democracy in California is in a period of exciting transition. We hope this report will help inform and inspire reformers and policymakers looking to build a better democracy at all levels of government.”

A summary of the key findings and the full report (large file) can be found on the Common Cause website.

Some of the highlights of the 2016 survey include:

Surge in By-District Elections: Most city councils (86%) are elected in at-large elections, where candidates run and are elected citywide. However, since the passage of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA), which prohibits using at-large elections that result in minority voter disenfranchisement, the number of cities with by-district elections has been growing, especially in recent years. From 2011 to 2016, the number of cities with by-district elections almost doubled from 31 to 59, now representing 12% of cities.  As a result of CVRA lawsuits, another 16 cities have agreed to switch from at-large in the next few years.

Farewell to odd-year elections: Odd-year elections and even-year elections that are held on a date other than a statewide election used to be the norm for California cities. However, because local elections generate less interest than state elections, these “off-cycle” elections typically have very low turnout. Today, only 23% of cities still hold off-cycle elections. A 2015 law, the California Voter Participation Rights Act, prohibits cities from holding off-cycle elections if it results in turnout that is 25% lower than state elections: as a result, 31 additional cities have passed laws to on-cycle elections, many in just the past few months.

No campaign finance limits, poor disclosure: California is in the minority of states to have no local campaign contribution limits. That means donors can give unlimited amounts to local candidates, unless their jurisdiction has enacted its own limits. In California, 78% of cities have not adopted contribution limits. Although candidates must report their campaign contributions and expenditure, for 68% of cities campaign finance information is filed on paper and is not posted online.


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