When it comes to local elections, L.A.'s voters are dismally, embarrassingly disengaged. Fewer than 1 in 4 cast ballots for a new mayor in 2013. Just 1 in 7 registered voters bothered to turn out for City Council candidates in 2011. A recent, informal survey by Times reporters found that only a handful of 50 Angelenos interviewed could identify their representative on the City Council.
In the wake of the pathetic 23% turnout in the last mayor's race, city officials appointed a Municipal Elections Reform Commission. After interviewing experts in elections, politics and civic engagement, its primary proposal was to reschedule L.A.'s elections to coincide with presidential and gubernatorial elections. Indeed, research shows that switching to so-called on-cycle elections results in significantly higher voter turnout. How? Simply by capturing the voters who show up in greater numbers for higher-profile state and federal elections.
FOR THE RECORD:
Voter turnout: A Feb. 9 editorial endorsing Charter Amendments 1 and 2 said that just 1 in 7 registered voters turned out for Los Angeles City Council elections in 2011. The ratio was about 1 in 6.
The way the system works now, Los Angeles holds off-cycle elections, with primaries and runoffs scheduled in March and May of odd-numbered years. Over the last decade, turnout has ranged from 10% to 34%. Cities with elections in June and November of even-numbered years typically have almost double the turnouts. In 2012, for example, Alhambra, Downey, Pomona and Pasadena drew 49% to 54% turnouts.
Democracy is not served when so few Angelenos vote. Low turnout allows the few to make decisions for the many and gives extra power to well-organized special-interest groups that know how to get out their vote. Last year, The Times editorial board urged the City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti to act on the commission's recommendation — also backed by Common Cause, the 2020 Commission and other political reform groups — to reschedule L.A.'s elections. City Hall acted, and on March 3, voters will be asked to approve Charter Amendments 1 and 2 to move city and L.A. Unified school board elections to June, with a November runoff, in even-numbered years.
The two measures deserve a yes vote.
But although we believe in the idea, we're disappointed in the execution. The City Council chose to align mayoral and citywide elections with gubernatorial elections starting in 2022, and to match the lower-impact council races with the presidential elections starting in 2020. If officials wanted the highest possible turnout for the highest-impact elections, they would have paired mayoral elections with presidential elections, which typically draw 70% to 80% turnout in the November runoffs. Also, there are more local races in a mayoral election year, so combining those ballots with the presidential would have meant higher turnout for a greater number of local races.
What's more, the city's March mayoral primaries tend to draw more voters than June primaries in gubernatorial years. Since 70% of city races are decided in the primary, some people worry that the city might not see a big boost in turnout by moving the mayoral race to the gubernatorial year.
To switch to the new election cycles in 2020 and 2022, the City Council had two choices: either hold special elections in 2019 and 2021 for a shorter-than-usual 18-month term or lengthen the terms of city officials elected this year and in 2017 by 18 months, giving them a one-time, extra-long 5 1/2-year term. Not surprisingly, the officials chose the second path. As a result, voters won't know if they're voting in new City Council members for four years or 5 1/2 years — and won't find out until they learn whether the amendments have passed.
There is also concern that local elections will be overshadowed by the national and state races. Local candidates will appear at the end of a long ballot that could include dozens of high-profile races. Campaigning may become more difficult and expensive as local candidates fight for voter attention and limited airtime.
Finally, moving the election won't address the underlying causes of low turnout — the civic malaise that prevents so many Angelenos from becoming engaged in the democratic process and leaves them feeling that local elections don't matter. Charter Amendments 1 and 2 treat a symptom of the disease, but not the disease. It is essential to continue to seek ways to cure that through campaign finance reform, civics education and diverse, engaging political candidates.
Despite these caveats, moving the elections is the right thing to do. Increasing participation should be a top priority, and Charter Amendments 1 and 2 are the fastest, easiest ways to do it.