How to get more Angelenos to the ballot box

Mayor Eric Garcetti was elected by fewer than 5.7% of the people in Los Angeles

Los Angeles' budget for 2014-15 tops $8.1 billion, which is bigger than the budgets of about a dozen states. In the coming months, the city must grapple with some serious questions, many related to how to spend that money, such as the funding of pensions; hiring and retention of police officers, firefighters, city attorneys and other city employees; building and maintaining our city's infrastructure; and alleviating traffic.

So it is more than a little distressing that so few bother to take part in our government by voting. Less than one quarter of registered voters showed up in the May 2013 municipal election. That was an election with a competitive race for mayor. Even fewer showed up — 17.9% — in the 2009 mayoral election when incumbent Antonio Villaraigosa ran against largely unknown challengers.

The city has about 1.8 million registered voters, 47% of the city's residents. It is worth noting that these voters are not reflective of the makeup of the city. Registered voters are older, whiter, better educated and typically wealthier. Unregistered residents fall into two categories: those who cannot vote (because they are underage, not citizens or felons) and those who do not want to.

What happens when only about 23% of those registered show up to the polls, as happened in the 2013 mayoral election? Eric Garcetti won with about 222,300 votes, or only 12% of registered voters. That means fewer than 5.7% of the people in Los Angeles cast a ballot for the person who leads the city. This says nothing about whether Garcetti was a good candidate; it does demonstrate that very few people affected by his decisions showed up to vote.

Such dismal voter turnout numbers create a system in which we have a "voting class" that makes the decisions for the rest of the city's constituents. Those who chose not to vote are ceding an enormous amount of power to those who do.

What can we do about this? There is one suggestion to increase voter turnout that will be put to a vote because it changes the City Charter. Oh, the irony. That proposal would consolidate city elections with state and federal elections. The change would take effect in 2020 and 2022. The terms of sitting representatives would be extended to allow local, state and federal elections to align on the same date. Currently, city elections are held in March and May of odd-numbered years and are not tied to state and federal elections.

The main complaint from critics of consolidating elections is that local races could get less attention. But how much less attention can these elections possibly get?

Studies indicate that consolidating elections could significantly increase voter turnout. Although fewer than 420,000 Angelenos cast ballots in the May 2013 municipal elections, 1.2 million voted in the November 2012 federal and state elections. And it isn't just that the number of voters could increase. It could also help draw younger, more diverse voters.

Consolidating elections would not be a cure-all for all that ails democratic participation in Los Angeles. Many residents feel disconnected from their elected representatives and opt out. Consolidation would not change that. Nor is that sentiment entirely surprising.

This is a huge city, and each City Council member represents more than a quarter-million people. Only seven states have state Senate districts with more constituents. Therefore, it is no surprise that many citizens do not know their representatives and are not exactly sure what they do. In such circumstances, it is hard to generate enthusiasm about voting for them. Hence, another reform worth considering is increasing the number of City Council members to make the districts smaller. But if there is one thing that voters dislike more than politicians, it is increasing the number of politicians.

It will take work from all parties — representatives and candidates, voters and would-be voters — to increase the amount of voter information about our representatives and what they do. We can and should all be more educated about local government.

And by consolidating our elections, we would get the much higher number of voters who show up for federal and state elections to weigh in on local issues as well.

Jessica A. Levinson is a clinical professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and vice president of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. She blogs at PoLawTics.lls.edu. Twitter: @LevinsonJessica

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