Tim Rutten: L.A. needs a partisan kick-start


Every municipal election is followed by an inevitable parsing of the results, since the candidates aren’t the only ones who win and lose.

Thus, in the wake of last week’s balloting, we’ve had the usual rhetorical roundup of the usual suspects: Is the influence of organized labor, whose expensive effort to unseat Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks in the 8th District came up short, waning? Do media endorsements really count these days? Is incumbency still too great an advantage to overcome?

Those all are reasonable questions, but they pale in significance when compared to the one that ought to be asked: Why is voter turnout in Los Angeles so low? According to the city clerk’s final election-night bulletin, slightly more than 1 in 10 of the city’s registered voters — 11.59% — cast a ballot last week, even though seven council seats were at stake and the city is confronting its worst financial crisis since the Depression.


Unfortunately, there’s nothing anomalous about that percentage; nothing so defines this city’s politics as the chronic lack of electoral participation — and nothing, perhaps, so decisively contributes to our politics’ continuing dysfunctionality.

Consider for a second what that 11.59% really means: Recent U.S. census figures put L.A.’s population at slightly more than 3.8 million people. State estimates, which may be better at counting immigrants, indicate that 4 million probably is more accurate. According to the city clerk, 1,644,647 of those Angelenos are registered to vote, but fewer than 200,000 of them chose to participate in last week’s election.

Council members are routinely elected or returned to office by a minuscule portion of their constituents. Taking the census’ estimate of our population as a base line, each of the 15 council members represents more than 250,000 constituents. Among the incumbents returned to office last week, according to the clerk’s last election-night bulletin, Tom LaBonge received just 8,956 votes in the 4th District, Tony Cardenas got 4,009 in the 6th, Parks had just 7,934 in the bitterly contested 8th, Herb J. Wesson Jr. received just 8,212 in the 10th and Jose Huizar got 9,266 in the 14th.

Now it’s true that with no mayoral or other race for citywide office on the ballot, this election was like a congressional midterm, when turnout traditionally drops on the national level. But that’s only a partial explanation. Nor does it suffice to insist, as often has been done, that Angelenos simply don’t care about politics. When you note that, according to the census, more than 1 in 4 residents are under 18 and that somewhere around 4 in 10 are foreign-born, the fact that more than a third of the city’s residents are registered to vote is fairly respectable. The conclusion that suggests itself is that it’s city politics and not electoral politics per se that fail to excite or interest many of our people.


One reason may be our nonpartisan elections. More than a decade ago, Los Angeles reformed its City Charter and cast aside many of the attributes of so-called managerial government that were themselves a legacy of the Progressive-era reforms. The progressives had a deep-seated horror of normal party politics, which they saw as the root of corruption, and an almost theological belief that government’s affairs were best — and most honestly — conducted when they were placed as much as possible in the hands of professional managers. Neither predilection was vindicated by history, particularly in Los Angeles.

Although the last charter reform put much of what flowed from those ideas behind us, it left intact our system of nonpartisan elections. But was that a good idea? Without parties, voters tend to cohere around such things as ethnicity and personality, which are electoral politics’ lowest common denominators. Parties, moreover, are important mediating institutions. In a city as diverse as Los Angeles, they’d provide a place for people of various backgrounds and interests to work out differences and conflicts out of the glare of public attention. They’re also great generators of enthusiasm at the street level; nobody gets out the vote like a party’s motivated precinct captain.


There’s no reason, moreover, why L.A.’s politics would have to accept the national two-party template. It’s possible to imagine a variety of local parties, from Greens to Immigrant Rights. And all of them could be engines of an electoral enthusiasm we badly lack.