KPCC has embarked on a series called Project Citizen, which looks at the rights, responsibilities, traditions and privileges that come with being a citizen. Among them is the right to vote. But fewer than one in four Angelenos voted in the May 21 election for mayor. That was an all-time low for the city, which is causing concerned parties to look at how to boost participation in local government. (Explore L.A. voter turnout in our interactive map.)
Every four years, when it's time to elect a president or governor, Ben Calderwood is at the polls. The freelance writer is a consistent voter — except when it comes to the local ballot.
"They're the only elections that I really don't pay that much attention to," says Calderwood matter-of-factly, sitting at the kitchen table in in his West L.A. apartment. "So it's my final voting frontier."
Calderwood is hardly alone. The turnout for L.A.'s mayoral election in May was just 23 percent. In the most recent mayoral elections in San Francisco and Chicago, turnout topped 40 percent.
In a city with 1.7 million registered voters, Eric Garcetti made it to the mayor's office with 222,000 votes. Calderwood says he doesn't vote in local races, and suspects many others don’t, because it’s unclear exactly what L.A. elected officials do.
"I think the trick is explaining to people what that connection is between those individuals, between the mayor and between the people who live in their city that they keep saying that they care about," Calderwood says.
Ed Coghlan with California Forward says Calderwood is onto something. California Forward is a non-profit group dedicated to making government more efficient and transparent. Coghlan says most Angelenos don't feel a connection to City Hall — they don't have an understanding of what local government can do for them and therefore don't think their vote makes a difference.
"You know, one of the things they say is that voter turnout is always a lot better when the people are connected to something, when they're engaged," Coghlan says. "Or the kids are in school or their job is influenced by public policy or they're part of the neighborhood council setup."
According to Coghlan, Garcetti's promises for an accessible office could engage residents enough that, in four more years, they'll show up at the polls. But engagement is not L.A.'s only problem — there's also the issue of timing.
The city holds its elections in off years. Advocates of the system say it allows local races to avoid competing for attention with national campaigns. But coming in the wake of presidential and Congressional contests, voters can be weary. L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson says he wants to appoint a commission to examine how to increase turnout.
"I want to look at moving the election cycle so that it coincides with the state run elections," Wesson says. "Maybe we get a higher turnout, we probably save some dough." (Story continues below map.)
Choice of candidates
A third challenge for voters, at least this time around, may have been their choice of candidates. Anthony Ragan, who lives in Mar Vista, voted for Kevin James in the primary, but didn’t choose either Garcetti or Wendy Greuel in the runoff, believing neither represents his interests. But that doesn't mean Ragan won't be paying attention to what happens in the mayor's office.
"Even though I didn't bother to vote, I live here, I pay taxes," says Ragan during an interview in a library study room at UCLA where he works. "I have every right to contact the office and say, 'What's going on with this?'"
And for what it's worth, Ragan did vote in other races on the May 21st ballot, which included elections for city attorney, controller and three council races. Turnout ranged from 27 percent in the Silverlake-based 13thDistrict to 17 percent in South L.A.’s 9th District.
Los Angeles has almost 100 neighborhood councils, countless homeowner associations and civic groups. Ragan says there's no excuse for not paying attention to what happens in City Hall.
"If you really want to change things, then people have to get off their butts," Ragan says. "It's just too easy to say it doesn't matter when you pay taxes [and] collect services. If you want any sort of change, then you really do have to do the work yourself."
Angelenos in the northeast San Fernando Valley will have a chance to do that work next week, when a special election is held in the Los Angeles City Council's Sixth District.
Did you vote on May 21? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments.