After Eight-Year Gap, Clovis Voters To Cast A Ballot For City Council
Something is about to happen in Clovis that hasn’t happened in nearly a decade. A small army of county employees will descend next Tuesday to administer the first city council election there since 2009. While some say it's a sign that things in the city have been running well, others say the odd election format discourages the participation of both candidates and voters.
The last time citizens of Clovis voted on a new city council member, ‘Right Round’ by the rapper Flo Rida was the number one song in the country. That was March of 2009.
There was no election in 2011.
They were all canceled.
“The incumbents have not been challenged. So the last time we ran one for them was in 2009,” says Fresno County Elections Clerk Brandy Orth.
If no one challenges an incumbent or multiple people don’t run for an open seat, there is no need for an election.
(Reporter) That’s eight years since voters have gone to cast votes for city council. Is that usual?
“No, not usually. Not from all of the other cities that we handle. It would certainly seem that the electorate of Clovis have been happy with their elective representatives,” Orth says.
"My opinion is that the residents of Clovis have been pretty satisfied. And of all of the city council meetings that I have participated in since 2009, very few of them have been packed," Fresno County Supervisor Nathan Magsig
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In one week that will change. Three seats are up for election but only one of the three has multiple candidates. As a result, all three seats will be voted on.
Nathan Magsig was elected to the Fresno County Board of Supervisors in November but spent more than a decade prior on the Clovis City Council. He was re-elected twice without his seat actually being voted on.
He says interest in running for the council ebbs and flows based on if there are any hot topics, for example building a sewer plant, or if there is concern about the direction of the city.
“My opinion is that the residents of Clovis have been pretty satisfied. And of all of the city council meetings that I have participated in since 2009, very few of them have been packed. Where there were a lot of residents that were concerned about any major issues,” Magsig says.
The previously canceled elections saved the city money because there was no need to pay the county to run them.
But you might be asking yourself, ‘didn’t we just have a big election?’ California voters cast a lengthy ballot with everything from President, to city councils, to initiatives back in November.
Supervisor Magsig says in the 1990’s Clovis moved its election to the March of odd numbered years.
“And the reason that was done is because a lot of voters, at that time, believed that the Clovis City Council was being lost in general election cycles. In the Presidential election cycle or Governor election cycle,” Magsig says.
"And there is a great irony there and that it is these races where maybe a few thousand votes, a few hundred votes, might separate the candidates. So one voter might have a bigger impact but they don't turn out," Political Scientist Jeff Cummins
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But if the goal was to drive voter engagement, the opposite happened. Turn out in Clovis in off-year elections is consistently about 25% of what it is in November.
Fresno State political science professor Jeff Cummins says odd year March elections routinely have low turnout because voters aren’t paying as much attention, there is less media coverage, and as a result incumbents get re-elected at much high rates.
All of which, Cummins says, makes a government less responsive.
“And there is a great irony there and that it is these races where maybe a few thousand votes, a few hundred votes, might separate the candidates. So one voter might have a bigger impact but they don’t turn out,” Cummins says.
These elections are also more expensive. Because the city must shoulder the cost of on its own without sharing that expense with other cities or the state.
It is expected to cost about $175,000. If they ran it in November it would cost about half as much.
That also are also more expensive on a per vote basis because the costs of running an election is relatively fixed regardless of how many people turn up to vote.
This has been true so consistently for so long it has sparked a state law that to push cities to move future elections to line up with larger state and national contests in the fall of even years.
Clovis City Clerk John Holt says they are in the process of moving their election because November turnout rates in the city are around 80% but the March elections only see turnout of around 22%.
“It’s a transition period over the next five years to where they are done in November of an even year. The first actual one will be in November of 2022,” Holt says.
In other words, next Tuesday's election marks the last time voters will elect a city council member to a full four-year term in an off-year election.
And that might not be the only change coming to the council in the near future.
Holt predicts - but isn’t sure when - Clovis will create city council districts and do away with the current system of all the council members being elected at-large.