Next month, Los Angeles voters will go to the polls in a first round of balloting to elect a new mayor and other city officials. The election is taking place just four months after the presidential balloting, which means that Angelenos have been caught in a months-long cycle of nonstop electioneering. No sooner was the presidential election over than a new round of debates, television commercials and mailers started up for the city election.
It’s no wonder that only a small fraction of registered voters will cast ballots this March. They’re suffering from election fatigue.
Every two years, I wonder why we do things this way. Why do we have separate municipal elections instead of holding them at the same time as state and national elections? The practice is misguided and wasteful, and it also depresses civic engagement.
During the last hotly contested mayor’s race, a mere 28% of registered voters voted in the primary and 33% in the runoff. In years that only City Council races are on the ballot, the numbers are even lower.
Traditionally the turnout is much higher during state and national elections. Typically, 50% to 60% of registered voters show up to elect presidents and governors. We could see that same kind of turnout for city elections if we would bring the election cycles into alignment.
Los Angeles could also save money. Last month, the city clerk put the cost of a citywide election at $5.5 million. In recent years, the city has had to lay off thousands of workers and slash services to cope with budget shortfalls. Holding city elections at the same time as state and national ones could save taxpayer dollars while dramatically increasing voter participation.
Dozens of California cities, including San Diego, Sacramento and San Jose, already hold their local elections at the same time as state and federal balloting.
So why has this system persisted in L.A.? One part of the answer is that well-funded special interests are deeply invested in the system as it is. Elections are easier to win if you only need to turn out a small contingent of voters and can focus on targeting those people with mailers and TV and radio ads.
One argument against consolidation that I have heard is that voters would suffer ballot fatigue — that they would have trouble focusing on so much in a single election. But it seems to me that having a few more names on the ballot would be far less fatiguing for L.A. voters than an entirely separate election. Reducing the number of times we ask voters to go to the polls or endure the relentless campaigning would certainly be a welcome relief.
Angelenos can’t rely on their elected officials to change things willingly. During the current campaign, the issue came up at least once in a debate, and only one of the four leading candidates endorsed the idea of bringing L.A.'s elections into conformity with state and national elections. It will clearly take some determined grass-roots agitating to challenge the city’s senseless but long-standing tradition of off-year elections.
Laura N. Chick was Los Angeles city controller from 2001 to 2009. She served on the City Council from 1993 to 2001.