At this point, it's not even a surprise anymore: A measly 10% or so of voters cast ballots in Tuesday's elections, which included half the seats on the City Council, several school board and community college board seats and two ballot measures.
That's pathetic. But the good (though perhaps ironic) news is that the two citywide measures on the ballot were designed to address exactly this problem of low participation in elections — and they passed overwhelmingly. By moving L.A.'s elections to June and November of even-numbered years starting in 2020 — and thereby aligning them with higher-turnout state and national elections — Charter Amendments 1 and 2 are expected to increase, and perhaps even double or triple, participation in local contests. If that change can turn 10% voter participation into 20% or 30% participation, it will be a big and worthwhile improvement. A democracy in which local officials are selected by just 1 in 10 voters is not healthy, nor truly representative.
But changing Los Angeles' election dates is not a cure-all. It's a procedural change that treats a symptom rather than the underlying disease. The city's political and community leaders must stay focused on the deeper reasons so many residents sit out local elections.
For some, it's a lack of interest in local issues, or a lack of understanding about what local government does. Or too many elections. Or they feel there's no point voting when the policy differences between candidates seem insignificant.
Many Angelenos think their votes don't matter: They believe, and they're not entirely wrong, that City Hall is more responsive to developers and unions and other powerful interest groups that contribute to campaigns than it is to voters. Many voters complain that candidates make endless promises on the campaign trail, but never deliver. To many people, voting doesn't seem like an effective way to make change.
The job of the city's elected leaders — and of the news media, campaign consultants and anyone else who cares about local government — is to show voters that elections do matter. How? Candidates should follow through on those pledges to repair sidewalks, curtail billboard blight and fix the bureaucracy that ties up small businesses. Demonstrate that elected leaders can work with communities to bring about real change. When officials falter, they should be called out and challenged at their reelection.
Elections matter when they are competitive. Yet too often there is no substantial debate in a council race, or a decent challenger stands no chance. Incumbents cruised to victory Tuesday over strong challengers, in part because they collected three and four times more money than their opponents and benefited from special-interest funded independent expenditures. City leaders and good government advocates should look for ways to lessen the power of big money in local elections.