California Appeals Court Ruling Undermines Democracy and Voter Trust in the City of San Diego

SAN DIEGO — Today, the California Appeals Court ruled against voters in an election protection case against the San Diego City Council brought by Alliance San Diego and voters Isidro Ortiz and Michael McConnell. The case challenged the manipulation of an election on Measure C, a tax measure on the March 2020 ballot to expand the convention center. Although the lower court had ruled that the San Diego City Council had violated the due process of voters by delaying the outcome of the election for a year and then changing the vote threshold required to win, the Appeals Court today chose to disregard those concerns, undermining our democracy. 

The first issue that the Appeals Court decided today was whether a special tax in a citizens' initiative needs a simple majority or two-thirds vote to win. That was not the issue raised by Alliance San Diego and the voters who brought the suit and not what the lower court ruled on because the due process issue could not be overcome. Nonetheless, the Appeals Court took up the issue and decided that a citizens' initiative only needs a simple majority. 

“Once the Appeals Court decided the vote threshold issue, it discounted the due process issue,” said Dr. Isidro D. Ortiz, Alliance San Diego Board President and Voter. “In a dangerous ruling, the Court determined that the ends justify the means.” 

The Appeals Court described the City's statements to voters regarding the two-thirds votes needed for the ballot measure's passage as "misinformation" and minimized its harm. The court stated: "The misinformation occurred only above the measure’s official title and summary and in the ballot summary." Because it did not also appear on the ballot, the Court found that it did not cause harm. "Accordingly, we do not invalidate Measure C on due process grounds."

The court also determined that the year-long delay in declaring the outcome of the election was not a due process violation. The court construed the City Clerk's statutory duty to certify the results as not requiring a declaration of the outcome, which is a contortion of the plain understanding of results. This is perhaps the most egregious part of the decision, holding the door open for elected members of a city council to suspend the outcome of an election when they don't agree with the voters. The San Diego City Council's actions to delay the election outcome was the first known instance of this. With the Court's decision, it may not be the last. 

In a strange statement, the Appeals Court asserted that voters could have challenged the delay earlier: "The opponents here could have challenged the April 2020 Resolution for failing to declare the outcome of Measure C, and they chose not to." But it's not clear that would have mattered, since the Court then goes on to say: "Whatever opponents’ reasons for failing to challenge the City’s (in)action in court, we have concluded that Measure C, as a citizens’ initiative, was subject to a simple majority vote. We will not now undo the will of the voters based on a delay."

“The end result is a loss for voters and a weakened democracy where the integrity of the electoral process is subsumed by the desired result,” said Michael McConnell, San Diego Voter. “This is a short-sighted and damaging decision.” 

The case will now be remanded to the lower court for a factual examination of whether Measure C was actually a citizens' measure, which is the basis for the court's determination that it only needs a simple majority vote. Other litigants — not Alliance San Diego — have raised the question of whether it was in fact a citizens' measure given the heavy involvement of city officials. That will be the fight of other litigants.

“In the coming days, Alliance San Diego and the voters we stand with will consider our options in this case,” said Andrea Guerrero, Executive Director of Alliance San Diego. “Regardless, we will continue to fight for an inclusive democracy where voters decide elections, not politicians. We remain grateful to the San Diego City Council Members who rejected the shenanigans of their colleagues, voted against delaying the election outcome, and stood steadfast with voters: Monica Montgomery Steppe, Vivian Moreno, and Barbara Bry.” 



Alliance San Diego is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) community organization that is building collective power to create a more inclusive democracy, one where all people can participate with dignity in an environment of harmony, safety, equality, and justice. We pursue this mission by developing leaders, engaging the community, advocating for policies, communicating strategically, and protecting human rights.