When fewer than 1 in 4 registered Los Angeles voters bothered to cast a ballot for a new mayor last year, it set off a round of soul-searching among city officials and political experts. Why were voters so disengaged? What would make them show up at the polls? What does it say about the nature of our democracy if the city’s leaders are selected by only a small fraction of eligible voters while the rest stay at home?
Seeking answers, city officials established the Municipal Elections Reform Commission, which eight months later offered some 30 ideas to make voting more convenient, improve outreach and help foster a culture of voting. But the commission’s primary recommendation was one that its members believe could instantly double the number of people who vote in city races: Reschedule L.A.'s election days to coincide with presidential and gubernatorial elections.
Los Angeles primaries and general elections are currently held in March and May of odd-numbered years, when there are no state or federal races being decided. But the commission (just like the 2020 Commission, Common Cause and other groups) recommends moving local elections to June and November of even-numbered years. Changing the voting date is not a simple fix; it would ultimately require a vote of the people to change the City Charter and would most likely not take effect until 2020 or 2022. But the research on the subject is clear. Switching to so-called on-cycle elections, when state and federal elections are held, would result in significantly more Angelenos voting in local races — simply because more of them would already be at the polls to vote in the higher-profile presidential, congressional and gubernatorial races.
That would be a welcome change. The City Council will begin debating the proposed change on Friday, and Mayor Eric Garcetti and the members of the council should embrace it.
Of course, consolidating local, state and federal elections has some risks and potential drawbacks. Local elections would be at the bottom of a very long ballot, campaigning could become even more expensive as candidates compete for limited air time, and local candidates would undoubtedly be overshadowed by national or state races. And we know — and the political leadership should acknowledge — that changing the election calendar does not address the underlying reasons why people don’t vote. Nevertheless, increasing participation in local elections is an inherently good thing, and if switching to on-cycle elections means more people will be involved in choosing their local representatives, then Los Angeles shouldn’t hesitate to do it.
Low voter turnout isn’t unique to Los Angeles. A survey of 144 cities found the average participation rate in mayoral elections was 26%, compared to about 55% turnout in presidential elections and 37% in midterm elections over the last two decades. More than two-thirds of municipalities across the country have odd-numbered year elections, thanks to Progressive-era reforms in the early 1900s that installed a nonpartisan municipal government model in most American cities, which established off-cycle elections to reduce the corruptive influence of political parties and to keep voters focused on local affairs.
Unfortunately, that well-intentioned policy has led to an epidemic of low turnout in local elections. At worst, the lack of participation in off-cycle elections favors groups that can muster strong get-out-the-vote efforts, such as public employee unions, business interests or homeowners associations, and disfavors minority, low-income and younger voters, who show up in greater numbers for state and national elections. The result can be elected leaders who do not reflect the communities they’re supposed to represent. In Los Angeles, whites, older voters and homeowners cast a larger percentage of ballots in city elections, whereas in state and federal elections, younger voters and Latinos participate in greater numbers, according to research from the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs.
Despite the tradition of off-cycle municipal elections, a growing number of California cities have voted to go on-cycle, partly to boost turnout and partly to save the money spent on hosting stand-alone local elections. Cities across the country that have moved to June and November of even-numbered years have turnout rates that are almost double those of municipalities with off-cycle elections, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Last year, the election to pick a new Los Angeles mayor and to fill several open and competitive City Council seats drew just 20% of registered voters for the March primary and 23% for the May runoff. In 2012, Alhambra, Downey, Pomona and Pasadena — all cities with on-cycle elections — drew 49% to 54% turnouts.
There are trade-offs that may come with switching to on-cycle elections. City candidates would have to compete with state, federal and ballot measure campaigns for news coverage and public attention, as well as pay higher rates for television and radio advertising. The higher cost of campaigning means candidates might have to spend more time raising money than meeting constituents, and might also lead to a bigger role for special-interest independent expenditure committees and more money in politics — just the kinds of activities that turn off some qualified candidates, as well as potential voters.
And let’s not fool ourselves. Moving election dates is a procedural change that would surely capture more registered voters and increase turnout rates, but nobody should suggest that it would solve the civic engagement problem. Even if the number of registered voters casting ballots doubles, there would still be a huge pool of people who choose to sit out local elections or who never register in the first place. They may feel disconnected from or disinterested in their government or they may lack faith that their participation would have an impact. As this page argued recently, reviving civic engagement at the local level requires educating residents about the duties of citizenship, encouraging more competition in races and changing the culture of campaigning to focus on substance over soundbites.
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