Election 2015: LA city measures aimed at boosting voter turnout

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In an effort boost voter turnout, Los Angeles city charter Amendments 1 and 2 will appear on the ballot on Tuesday and, if passed, would shift Los Angeles city and L.A. Unified School Board elections to even-numbered years, when there are also state and national elections.

  • Charter Amendment 1 would move the primary elections for mayor, city attorney, city controller and city council to June in even-numbered years. Runoffs would take place in November.
  • Charter Amendment 2 would make the same change for the L.A. Unified School Board elections.
  • Both would need to pass in order for the changes to take place.

“It makes sense to hold the election when more people are already paying more attention to politics and going to the polls,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, who supports the measures.

Just 23 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2013 runoff election, when voters elected Mayor Eric Garcetti. By contrast, 71 percent voted in the 2012 presidential contest.

Several California cities already hold municipal elections in even-numbered years. They include the following:

  • Sacramento
  • San Diego
  • San Jose
  • Santa Monica
  • Alhambra
  • Downey

Turnout in cities that conduct balloting in presidential elections averages 35 percentage points higher than in cities that hold “off-cycle” elections, according to Assistant Professor Sarah Anzia of the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. A Public Policy Institute of California study made similar findings.

Tuesday's L.A. measures are aimed at people like Mark Franks of Baldwin Hills, a project manager at a satellite communications company, who says he diligently votes in presidential elections but rarely casts a ballot in local races.

“I know I should,” he told KPCC after a city council candidate recently knocked on his door seeking his vote. “But I tend to believe that the city council seats don’t prove to be very effective. I don’t see the difference that’s made.”

Opponents of the measures worry that local issues would receive less attention if city elections are held as people are also voting for president, governor and on statewide ballot propositions.

“The Charter Amendments would bury our local elections at the bottom of an already long even-year ballot,” said Hans Johnson, Director of Save Our City Elections. He points out that people would vote for mayor after they get through the list of judicial candidates on an even-year ballot.

With people failing to make it to the end of the ballot, the increase in turnout will be less than predicted, he argued. (Here's a KPCC AirTalk debate on the measures.)

Special interest groups like the Chamber of Commerce and labor unions would wield more influence because voters would be overwhelmed, Johnson argued.

The L.A. Neighborhood Council Coalition agrees and has voted to oppose the measures.

Schnur counters that special interest groups would have less influence. “The greater the voter turnout, the more responsive the elected official or candidate has to be to the entire community, not just to special interests and donors.”

The Municipal Elections Reform Commission appointed by the L.A. city council recommended the change in elections. It’s backed by City Council President Herb Wesson, the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, the L.A. County Federation of Labor and Common Cause.

For his part, Garcetti has said he supports the idea of changing city elections. But he added that he believes it would be unethical to endorse the measures  because they would give him more time in office.

There is a twist to the implementation of the measures, should voters approve them. The new election cycles would start in 2020 for even-numbered council districts and 2022 for odd-numbered districts and citywide offices such as mayor and city attorney.

That means current elected officials would serve an extra year and a half in office. Opponents argue this is a cynical ploy to stay in office longer.

Will you be voting on Tuesday? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments below.

For information on the March 3 primary election, consult KPCC's 2015 L.A. County Primary Election Guide.

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