It’s about the numbers, or shall we say the lack of numbers, when Los Angeles voters come out to vote in city elections. The 23% turnout this last city election meant that few registered voters put the new mayor, Eric Garcetti, into office. With the current trend lines in voting in the city election, the next mayor may be elected by less than 10% of the voters. The Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to ask for a charter change so that the city elections move from odd numbered years to even numbered years to combine with presidential and gubernatorial elections.
There was concern expressed by council members during the discussion for making the change.
- The ballot will be too long.
- Newspapers and other media would not have the resources to cover municipal elections if they are also concerned with federal and state races.
- Donors will have other targets to give to and city officials will be wanting for campaign funds.
- There will be an increased turnout in sheer numbers, but those who vote for the municipal offices won’t care about city elections, the proof offered was that they don’t vote now in city elections.
There were suggestions to offset these concerns—for example, local officials have the opportunity to do retail politics, get out amongst the voters, unlike statewide candidates. Others suggested creating smaller districts by enlarging the 15 member council, or shortening the ballot by perhaps dropping the election of judges.
City Councilman Gil Cedillo dropped by my Pepperdine class on Monday and considered the measure, discussing it with students. He wondered aloud about the voters getting ballot fatigue, not voting for the municipal offices at the end of the ballot.
When that issue was raised at council, Fernando Guerra, political science professor at Loyola Marymount who co-chaired a commission looking into the low turnout in city elections, said that data showed that drop off in elections was minimal.
In speaking before the council, Cedillo argued that changing the city election to even numbered years would give greater opportunity for Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans to vote. He supported the measure, which passed 12 to 1 asking the city attorney to prepare the charter change measure.
There is a lot that must be done to improve civic engagement. But with the trend in voting in the Los Angeles city election heading down, the idea of bringing more citizens to the polls by simply changing the date seemed like the easiest fix. As Professor Guerra said to the council, there is no perfect system, but the proposed change is better than what the city has now.
The council’s final vote to put the proposal prepared by the city attorney before voters in March 2015 is scheduled for next week.