Even before this week's paltry turnout for the California primary, local officials already had reason to worry about disengaged voters.
Last year's mayoral election — a competitive contest between Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel — drew fewer than one-in-four voters to the polls. With that in mind, the city formed an Election Reform Commission, which recommends municipal elections be moved to coincide with state and federal races.
The commission, jointly appointed by Mayor Garcetti and council President Herb Wesson, wants to see city elections moved to June and November of even-numbered years. That would put them on the same cycle as presidential and gubernatorial elections. Under the current system, L.A. city elections are held in March and May of odd-numbered years.
"Every single study that examines turnout shows that moving it to the even-numbered years increases Latino, African-American, Asian-American and youth [turnout]," said Fernando Guerra, chair of the commission and director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "That's not theory. That is hundreds of very well-refined academic, rigorous studies."
Under the off-cycle elections, turnout has dwindled. The competitive mayoral race between Garcetti and Wendy Greuel last year resulted in just 23 percent turnout. Twenty years ago, 45 percent of registered voters turned out for the race between Richard Riordan and Mike Woo, and back in 1969, there was 75 percent turnout when Mayor Sam Yorty defeated Tom Bradley.
The commission's recommendation, however, was not unanimous. The decision came on a 6-3 vote. A minority report argued the move would decrease participation, limit opportunities to debate local issues and make campaigning even more expensive. A third report from Commissioner Jeffery Daar recommended the city hold elections over a weekend to increase turnout.
One commissioner, Larry Levine, argued that the added expense of campaigning in an even-numbered year would ultimately make it more difficult for candidates to communicate their messages. He also noted that some voters never make it to the end of a long ballot, where the municipal races would appear.
"The turnout drops as you go down the ballot," Levine said. "People don't get [engaged] by the bottom of the ballot. They come out for the top of the ballot."
A study by the U.S. Census, cited in the commission's report, found Americans say they do not vote because they're too busy, they're uninterested in the issues and they don't like the candidates.
The commission's report was forwarded to the Los Angeles City Council's Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations Committee, which is expected to take up the issue at its June 20 meeting.