Last week, Attorney General Xavier Becerra opined that the California Voter Participation Rights Act, also known as SB 415, applies to charter cities and school districts governed by charter cities. In the second opinion issued under Becerra’s administration, the Attorney General resolved the question of whether a charter city’s constitutional “home rule” authority with respect to local elections prevails over SB 415, or vice versa.
In 2015, the Legislature enacted SB 415 to address concerns arising from low voter turnout at “off cycle” local regular elections (dates other than the Statewide Primary and General Elections in June and November of even-numbered years). The law, which takes effect this coming January, requires any “political subdivision” whose past “off-cycle” election yielded a voter turnout rate at least 25 percent less than the average turnout for the previous four statewide elections to move its “off cycle” regular election date to one of the two statewide election dates.
However, it was unclear whether SB 415 must defer to the California Constitution’s “home rule” provision, which gives charter cities the power to legislate “in respect to municipal affairs” over inconsistent state law. “Municipal affairs” include the “conduct of city elections” and “the time at which … the several municipal officers … shall be elected.” This prompted the question to the Attorney General’s Office.
In his July 11 opinion, the Attorney General first noted prior California Supreme Court decisions holding that a charter city’s “home rule” is not absolute and may be superseded by state law if it concerns matters of “statewide concern.” The Supreme Court has established a four-part test to determine whether “home rule” or a state law will prevail when the two are in conflict:
whether the city law regulates a municipal affair,
whether there is an actual conflict between the city and state law,
whether the state law addresses a matter of statewide concern, and
whether the state law “is reasonably related to resolution of that concern and narrowly tailored to avoid unnecessary interference in local government.”
The Attorney General focused much attention on a 2014 Court of Appeal decision applying this same four-part test to the California Voting Rights Act, which requires local agencies to change from “at-large” to “by district” electoral systems under certain circumstances. In Jauregui v. City of Palmdale, the court held that the CVRA addressed a matter of statewide concern (preventing minority voter dilution), and did so in a reasonable manner that was narrowly tailored to avoid unnecessary interference in local government.
The Attorney General concluded that SB 415 equally addressed a matter of statewide concern — low voter turnout in “off-cycle” elections, which adversely affects the fundamental right to vote. The Attorney General further concluded that the law was reasonably related and narrowly tailored to address just that concern. Therefore, a charter city’s “home rule” authority must defer to SB 415.
Local public agencies, including charter cities, with “off cycle” elections should review their voter turnout records to determine whether SB 415 applies to them. Covered agencies must start complying by Jan. 1, or, at the very least, must adopt a written plan by that time to eventually change the regular election date by no later than Nov. 8, 2022.