Turnout in CalPERS board elections continues a two-decade slide despite a series of attempts to improve voter participation, including a $1.1 million runoff that boosted the total cost of an election last fall to $3.1 million.
Mail ballots were returned by 15.7 percent of the 1.26 million eligible voters as Kurato Shimada was re-elected and J.J. Jelincic won an open seat vacated by Charles Valdes.
A staff report last week said voter turnout has been declining, slowly but steadily, in the six CalPERS board seats filled by elections among member groups. The other seven seats are filled by officeholders and appointments.
The powerful 13-member board of the California Public Employees Retirement System controls investments currently worth about $207 billion and sets annual payments to the pension fund from the state and more than 1,500 local government agencies.
Voter turnout in the two at-large seats representing all CalPERS members was 20.4 percent in 1997, fell slightly to 20.15 percent in 2001, and then was down again to 16.67 percent in 2005 before falling to 15.7 percent last year.
The trend is similar for seats representing state workers, non-teaching school employees and local governments. The seat representing retirees, which has the most turnout, fell from 46.6 percent in 1991 to 31.58 percent in 2007, the last election.
In 1998, the report said, CalPERS spent $152,201 to increase turnout: postcard reminders to vote, messages on pay stubs and annual statements, and work-site posters. But turnout to fill three seats averaged 18.4 percent, down from 23.86 percent in 1994.
In 2001, the optional candidate statement in ballot material was increased from 150 to 200 words, with 100 more words for responses. The board also required election by a majority vote, rather than a “plurality” if the leader has less than 50 percent.
“Part of the justification for implementing these changes, especially the majority vote provision, was to increase voter participation,” said the staff report. But turnout continued to decline.
Before the 2007 election for the retiree seat, CalPERS hired a public relations firm to promote turnout, resulting in a color brochure mailed to encourage voting. Turnout continued to fall, and the brochure was not well-received.
“The prevalent comment was ‘Why are you spending retirement funds on telling me that you’re going to be mailing me a ballot for the election?’” said the report.
At a CalPERS board meeting last month, several members said it’s time to look at dropping the majority vote requirement and switching back to a plurality, a process taking about a year that could not be in place for elections this year.
Last fall, Shimada, an incumbent, won outright with 83 percent of the vote. Jelincic led Cathy Hackett, but did not have a majority among a field of five candidates. The election for both seats cost $2 million.
Jelincic went on to win the runoff in December with 109,094 votes, 51 percent, at an additional cost of $1.1 million. That brought the total cost of the elections last fall to $3.1 million paid for postage and two contractors, Intraform and Martin & Chapman.
“I think if it (a plurality) works for the president and the governor, it can probably work for the PERS board,” Jelincic said at the meeting last month. “So I’m not sure a runoff actually adds anything to the process, other than a whole bunch of heartache.”
Board member George Diehr, who narrowly avoided a runoff when he was re-elected with 51 percent of the vote in 2006, said the board should consider returning to a plurality or an “instant runoff,” if the secretary of state’s office approved.
“It would save money for the board,” said Diehr, “and especially for the incumbents it’s a very time-consuming process. It takes away from what we really should be doing.”
In an instant runoff, voters rank the candidates by preference, indicating their second and third choices and so on. If no candidate has a majority among the first choices, the rest of the votes are tallied to produce a winner.
Board member Henry Jones, who won a runoff in 2007 with 51.6 percent of the vote, said a change should be considered. A similar view came from Greg Beatty, a Schwarzenegger administration representative on the board.
“I think if we could do something to save $1 million, we really ought to take it seriously and try to pursue it,” Beatty said.
Board member Priya Mathur said she is interested in exploring ways to avoid the cost of a runoff and an extended campaign “onerous” for candidates.
“But I would want to make sure that we would have a truly democratic process that would reflect the true desires and wishes of the electorate,” Mathur said. “So I’m not sure I’m that comfortable with a plurality.”
James McRitchie, who advocated the switch to majority vote, told the board the secretary of state is not likely to approve instant runoff until mechanical counters, being used in some areas now, are certified statewide. He said that could happen in a few years.
“CalPERS is a very strong supporter of majority voting for corporate directors,” said McRitchie, who has a website on corporate governance, “and if you are not going to require a majority vote for your own directors, it doesn’t look good.”
McRitchie said under the old plurality rule a board seat was once won with 5.5 percent of the vote in a large field of candidates. Since then a requirement to file with the Fair Political Practices Commission has produced fewer candidates.
Recent board candidates have run well-financed campaigns, using personal appearances, telephone banks, fliers distributed through the mail and other ways to reach voters.
Jelincic reported receiving $78,679 in contributions and spending $20,293. A committee sponsored by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, spent $229,832 in support of Jelincic.
Hackett reported receiving $141,076, mainly from various units of the Service Employees International Union. She spent $128,072.
The CalPERS board voted last week to support a bill, SB 1007 by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, putting candidates for the CalPERS board under the same campaign reporting requirements as candidates for other elected offices.
Candidates for the CalPERS board, who now file two contribution reports or three in a runoff, might have to report more frequently if they receive large contributions or make certain expenditures.
To increase turnout this year, CalPERS may use social websites such as Twitter and hold a candidates forum. McRitchie, who organized a candidate forum last year, said the California School Employees Association supported his request that CalPERS sponsor a forum this year.
Diehr, Mathur and board president Rob Feckner all intend to run for re-election this year. The deadline for filing to be a candidate is May 13. Ballots due to be mailed Sept. 3 are to be returned by Oct. 1.