San Diegans should have the opportunity to write in the candidate of their choice in primary elections, the City Council Rules Committee decided by a 4-0 vote Monday. If the full council agrees, the new rule should be in effect by September’s council races, Mayor Roger Hedgecock said.
Although Rules Committee members favored write-ins during the primary, they balked at allowing write-ins in general elections. If write-ins were allowed in the general election after the field of candidates has been winnowed to two finalists, the write-ins might include “disgruntled participants from the primary,” Hedgecock said.
“The result would be a divided vote. If anyone were to win by less than 50%, it would cripple the city,” Hedgecock said. “You can’t retreat from the basic American value of majority rule.”
Councilman Uvaldo Martinez, who introduced the write-in proposal last month, initially sought to allow write-ins in both primary and general elections. But Monday he agreed with his colleagues that write-ins were appropriate in primary elections only.
San Diego is the only city in California whose charter bars a write-in ballot. In the last year, however, efforts to allow write-ins have been proceeding on several fronts. In addition to the Rules Committee proposal, state Sen. Jim Ellis (R-San Diego) has proposed legislation to require write-in ballots in all charter city elections, including general elections.
Ellis has argued that the write-in process is a “constitutional right.” The bill’s opponents, including the League of California Cities, have claimed this is a strictly local issue and Ellis’ bill is “an unwanted intrusion into local home rule.” The Rules Committee accepted the latter argument and by a 4-0 vote voted to oppose the Ellis bill.
In a third development, the California Supreme Court is considering whether to declare San Diego’s ban on write-in ballots unconstitutional. The case stems from a suit filed against City Clerk Charles Abdelnour in April, 1984, by San Diego public relations executive Jack Canaan. Canaan charged that he was disenfranchised because Abdelnour refused to allow Canaan to write in a candidate in the 1984 mayoral race.
The trial court and the 4th District Court of Appeal have upheld the city law. But Canaan, recently joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, has appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Their suit seeks to open both the city’s primary and general elections to write-in ballots. Canaan’s attorney, former San Diego City Councilman Michael Schaefer, told the court that the write-in was needed as a safeguard in all elections and would provide an alternative if one of the finalists in the general election were to die or otherwise become incapacitated after the primary.
If the Supreme Court eventually decides San Diego must offer the write-in ballot in all elections, Deputy City Atty. Stuart H. Swett said Monday, the city would just have to go forward with write-ins in all elections and there would be no need to amend the charter.
The full council must still consider the write-in ballot issue. Voting Monday for write-ins in primary elections were Mayor Hedgecock and Councilmen Martinez, William Jones and Bill Mitchell.