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L.A. residents will vote again on changing the city's election date — at a cost of $3.1 million

L.A. residents will vote again on changing the city's election date — at a cost of $3.1 million
Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson, pictured in June, spearheaded the effort to move city elections to even-numbered years. Now, the council is asking for voters to make another change — switching the 2020 primary from June to March. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Three years ago, Angelenos voted overwhelmingly to switch their local elections to even-numbered years, part of a larger effort to reverse years of dismal voter turnout.

Voters agreed to hold a June 2020 primary and a November 2020 runoff for City Council and school board elections, combining those races with state and national contests. But then state lawmakers moved the 2020 primary to March 2020, leaving the city once again out of sync.

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Now the council is looking to change the schedule again, sending voters two more election schedule ballot measures to bring L.A.’s 2020 primary back in line with the state. Doing that, however, will cost taxpayers an estimated $3.1 million.

City Clerk Holly Wolcott said that’s the price of placing the two measures on Los Angeles County’s Nov. 6 election ballot.

David A. Holtzman, who heads the group Los Angeles Voters For Instant Runoff Elections, called the expensive do-over vote the result of “an obvious drafting error” by city leaders in 2015. Charter Amendments 1 and 2, which moved local elections from odd- to even-numbered years, should have been written in a way that did not tie the 2020 primary election to a particular month, he said.

“Instead of specifying a specific date, they should have said, ‘We will always have the primary election when the state has them,’” he said.

Holtzman opposes Charter Amendments E and EE, which would move the city and school board primary to March 2020, arguing that city lawmakers should have come up with more comprehensive changes, such as ranked-choice voting. He warned the date change will cause the city’s runoff campaigns to last much longer than they did under the previous system.

Under L.A.’s odd-year election schedule, primary elections were held in March and a runoff, if needed, was conducted in mid-May. If voters pass E and EE, any runoff campaign would last eight months — and provide an advantage to “establishment” candidates and well-funded incumbents, Holtzman said.

In addition, any candidates who win the March 2020 primary outright would then have to wait nine months before they are seated.

Kathay Feng, who co-chaired the 2015 campaign for even-year elections, acknowledged the city had made “an expensive mistake” by putting a specific month in Charter Amendments 1 and 2. But she argued that Charter Amendments E and EE will ensure that the voters’ original intent — boosting voter participation in local elections — is carried out.

“Little did we know the state Legislature was going to move the primary to March,” said Feng, who is the executive director of California Common Cause, a nonprofit election watchdog group. “So really this is a cleanup bill to synchronize the election with the state election.”

Feng said Charter Amendments E and EE have been written so that if the Legislature moves the primary back to June in 2022, the council could do the same without having to consult voters again. Political science professor Fernando Guerra, another backer of the two measures, questioned the notion that an eight-month runoff election campaign would benefit better-funded candidates.

Having a longer runoff campaign would give challengers more time to reach voters without having to raise money, said Guerra, who is director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University and also a registered City Hall lobbyist.

The push to change the city’s election schedule was spearheaded by Council President Herb Wesson and featured one major side benefit for the city’s elected officials: an extra year and a half in office.

Vanessa Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for Wesson, referred questions about the 2015 ballot language to City Atty. Mike Feuer. Rob Wilcox, a Feuer spokesman, said the state Legislature changed the date two years after L.A. voters had rescheduled its elections.

State lawmakers changed the date of the primary in hopes of increasing California’s clout in the next presidential campaign.

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Asked about the $3.1-million cost of an election date do-over, Rodriguez said in an email that “engaging the citizenry is the most important element of a functioning democracy.”

L.A.’s 2020 election ballot will offer races for seven council seats and four school board seats. At least two city campaigns are expected to be highly competitive — one in Wesson’s district, the other in the downtown-to-Eagle Rock district represented by Councilman Jose Huizar. Both men are being forced out by term limits.

Huizar’s wife, Richelle Huizar, is widely expected to run for the seat held by her husband. For more than a year, she’s been appearing with her husband at district events and popped up regularly in the councilman’s social media messages.

Richelle Huizar did not return calls from The Times. But Jose Huizar, while declining to describe her plans, noted that “a lot of support is coming her way.”

“People are excited about having her be the next council person,” he said.

Huizar’s seat has also drawn interest from Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), who lives in Boyle Heights. Santiago chief of staff Jackie Koenig said her boss will make a decision in November.

In Council District 10, which stretches from Koreatown to Leimert Park, Wesson’s son, political aide Justin Wesson, has been considering a campaign. Another possible candidate is Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), who previously worked at City Hall in the Department of General Services.

A campaign consultant for Jones-Sawyer said his client is keeping “all options” open after the November election.

Attorney Grace Yoo, who waged an unsuccessful challenge against Wesson in 2015, said she intends to run for the seat again in the 2020 election.

2:30 p.m.: This article was updated to say that Richelle Huizar did not return calls from The Times.

This article was originally published at 5 a.m.

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