On May 2, the San Luis Obispo City Council split 3-2 and rejected, for the last time, an opportunity for the public to consider one of the most important questions regarding the operation of democracy. They declined to take up discussion of a democracy voucher program, which would provide a tax rebate to voters that could be cashed in to support candidates in local elections, greatly expanding the donor base that candidates rely on. So for now, democracy vouchers, possibly the most important innovation in voting rights technology since the implementation of laws to prohibit racial voter discrimination in the 1960s, are dead in SLO. How could city leaders, especially those who previously claimed to support democracy vouchers, reject even the idea of having a public discussion about this technology?
In a seminal 1976 article, “The City as a Growth Machine,” UC Santa Barbara sociologist Harvey Molotch coined that phrase to illustrate the extent to which the imperative for economic growth “is the most important constraint upon available options for local initiative in social and economic reform.” Molotch, in this and later work, illustrated how leaders in local government are disproportionately motivated by questions of control over land use and the distribution of resources related to growth. His essay foreshadowed current politics in San Luis Obispo.
Councilmember Dan Rivoire, who had previously supported such an ordinance, cited scarce staff resources and the need for fiscal austerity as his reasons for opposition. Similarly, Aaron Gomez, who had been interviewed and endorsed by Citizens Congress, a local group advocating democracy vouchers, stated that because the proposal had not emerged as a major concern during the city’s public budgeting sessions, that it was not important enough to put on the agenda. Mayor Heidi Harmon and Councilmember Andy Pease acknowledged the importance of at least discussing how the quality of elections might be improved, but the motion failed.
This failure of initiative can, I believe, be largely attributed to the constraints that growth machine politics impose on the legislative process. There is little room for politics outside of growth. As an illustration, consider that the potential cost of democracy vouchers in no way inhibits the council from considering them. Council could propose a program and ask the public, through a referendum, to either fund it through a direct tax on themselves, or not. But the fact of the matter is that, viewed through the prism of interests that the council is exposed to, Gomez is right: fundamental questions of governance aren’t important enough to make it on the to-do list.
Civil and political rights are rarely “problems” that rise to the top of the public’s concerns. Electoral reforms to ensure equal and effective representation never made a “top 10 concerns” list in national public opinion polls, even at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. A bare majority of adults even supported the possibility of a black president in 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed.
By contrast, SLO city leaders see that “their” citizens want affordable housing, less traffic, less homelessness, and related concerns expressed by those who show up to community outreach events. While the city should be applauded for getting 550 people together at the Ludwick Center to discuss budgeting, these good citizens are not typically representative of the larger community of 46,000. Rather, they come disproportionately from the same business and professional classes as our elected officials. They are not representative of average residents in any statistical sense. The issues that are discussed and the positions taken on them derive largely from the world views of those who live in business, professional, and political classes, and reflect the values of organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, the downtown associations, and other professional groups that have a direct interest in using public policy to enhance the exchange value of their properties.
Democracy vouchers would greatly expand the donor base upon which potential candidates, more representative candidates, could effectively serve in public office. Today, that base is largely limited to the experienced fundraisers, the movers and shakers, of either the growth machine, or its no-growth opposition, especially wealthy landowners or retirees who lean toward a version of aristocratic conservationism. The opportunity to serve should not be limited to membership in such exclusive groups. Cities with public financing draw larger numbers of working-class candidates, women, and people of color. If citizens want greater diversity, they should be able to support candidates outside of the growth machine to serve as elected officials.
City Council gave up on that opportunity on May 2. Citizens of San Luis Obispo don’t have to. They should reject an antiquated system that permits them to choose from a set of pre-selected candidates every few years. They deserve better.
Michael Latner is a political science professor and Master of Public Policy Program director at Cal Poly who co-authored the democracy vouchers ordinance proposal for SLO. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.