A citizens commission charged with finding ways to boost Los Angeles' low voter turnout called Thursday for city elections to move from odd-numbered years to even ones, when higher profile contests like governor or president are on the ballot.
The Los Angeles Municipal Elections Reform Commission, whose members were chosen by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and City Council President Herb Wesson, backed a ballot measure that would end the practice of holding elections for mayor, City Council and other municipal offices in March and May of odd-numbered years.
Backers of the change said cities that hold their elections in even-numbered years, ranging from Santa Monica to San Diego, have shown consistently higher levels of voter participation. No other proposal, they said, will go as far in increasing turnout.
"It will especially increase turnout of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans," said Commission Chairman Fernando Guerra, a professor who heads the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "That is indisputable."
The 6 to 3 vote followed a lengthy debate that exposed divisions on the panel over the best way to attract more voters. Opponents of the change to even-numbered years produced their own dissenting report, saying campaigns will become more expensive — and result in a greater need for fundraising — as candidates compete for airtime with state and federal candidates and ballot measure committees.
Commissioner Larry Levine, who opposed the change, pointed to this week's gubernatorial primary election as evidence that even-numbered years won't necessarily improve turnout. Turnout across Los Angeles County was expected to fall below 20% in that election, even after late absentees and provisional ballots were counted.
If L.A. had held its election this week, its races would have appeared at the bottom of a crowded ballot — after statewide offices, ballot measures and an array of judges. That means a significant number of voters would likely have skipped city races, said Levine, a political consultant.
"Had the city of Los Angeles municipal election been consolidated with the June 3, 2014, primary …turnout and participation in the municipal election would have been far lower than it actually was in 2013," he said.
Another citizen panel, the Los Angeles 2020 Commission, offered its own endorsement of even-numbered election years two months ago. That group, made up of politically connected lawyers, union representatives and business leaders, had argued that special interests would have less sway at City Hall if there were a larger pool of voters.
Garcetti responded to Thursday's vote by thanking the Reform Commission for its work, saying through a spokesman that he looks forward to reviewing the group's proposals. Wesson spokesman Ed Johnson said his boss would wait to comment until the final report reaches the council.
The Commission did not say when the city should move to even-year elections, mainly because the mechanics of such a change are complicated.
The panel called for Los Angeles County, not the city clerk, to conduct L.A.'s elections once they move to even years. However, the county Board of Supervisors has had a policy since 1987 barring additional jurisdictions — cities, school districts, water agencies — from being added to the statewide ballot.
That policy likely will stay in place until the county moves to a new voting system that can accommodate a lengthier ballot. County election officials expect a new voting system to undergo its first test run in 2017. It could be fully operational in 2018, one year after the next city mayoral election. Some officials say the city should wait to change the date until the county's new system has worked successfully.
The Elections Reform Commission offered a series of other recommendations Thursday, calling on the city clerk to conduct more voter outreach, develop a network of early voting locations and expand its polling sites to include nontraditional venues such as malls and supermarkets.
Commissioner June Lagmay, who voted against even-year elections, questioned whether the county would embrace the more unorthodox initiatives once the city stops running its own elections. "The city should understand they'll be giving up all administrative control," said Lagmay, a former Los Angeles City Clerk.
Still, the chief recommendation was the switch in the election date. Backers of the move pointed to four Los Angeles County cities — Alhambra, Downey, Pomona and Santa Monica — that had municipal elections in even-numbered years and higher turnouts than Los Angeles.
In each of those cities, a major chunk of the electorate weighed in on state and federal races but skipped city contests. In Santa Monica, for example, more than 86% of voters took part in the 2008 presidential balloting. Only 31% voted on city contests that year, according to the Commission's report.