Think piece

Laura Chick wants to change the dates of LA elections

laura-chick-red.jpgThere are at least two schools of thought on the long-standing practice of holding Los Angeles city elections in odd-numbered years. Some think it helps local issues get more attention if the City Hall races don't compete with the big elections for president, governor and senator. Others think the current method fatigues voters and that the city elections should be held on the same day as the national polling. Former city controller Laura Chick argues in a Times op-ed piece today for the latter: throwing the local LA contests into the same political cycle as the national and state elections. It would save money and increase voter interest, she asserts.

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.

Well, consider this. Los Angeles has been choosing its mayors in odd years since 1909, according to Raphael Sonenshein's book, "Los Angeles: Structure of a City Government." It appears that something besides the schedule is suppressing the desire of voters to take part and cast ballots.

When Sam Yorty won reelection as mayor just before the Watts riots in 1965, 59 percent of voters voted in the nominating primary. Participation then soared to 66 percent (and to 78 percent in the general election) for the heated, some would say ugly racially tinged 1969 campaign in which Yorty held off Tom Bradley, blocking him from becoming the city's first black mayor. Four years later, when Bradley won and pushed Yorty into the life of a TV talk show provocateur, the voter turnout in the runoff was 64 percent. Everybody in LA was talking about those election races. People took sides. Debated each other.

It has been all downhill from there. By the time Jim Hahn beat Antonio Villaraigosa in 2001, the voter turnout was just 34 percent in the primary (38 percent in the general.) Four years later, when Villaraigosa beat Hahn, the primary turnout fell under 30 percent and only reached 34 percent in the head-to-head runoff — less than half of the voter participation in the Bradley-Yorty fights three decades later. And guess what, the dates of the elections didn't change. But the emotional engagement did. The Hahnies and the Villaraigosa campers didn't loathe each other; in fact, they are smoothly co-mingled in the ranks of the current mayoral campaigns.

The composition of the city and the electorate also changed — it's younger, and less white and suburban. There also is much less street-level political activity in neighborhoods that mushrooms into citywide energy. The victorious Tom Bradley coalition of south LA blacks, Westside whites and liberals concerned about the LAPD really did sprout from political clubs, churches and coffee klatches.

These days the local news media barely cover real grassroots politics — they mostly report the results of government meetings and transcribe campaign sound bites. And not even much of that on television. What passes for political talk on radio is really just fringe culture war theater, with performers who push whatever emotional buttons work to keep the ratings up. The rise of the internet and social media makes all kinds of political activity easier to conduct, but also fractures it into smaller pieces. None of the current candidates for any office in Los Angeles have anything close to a citywide movement behind them — they'll just be happy to limp into the runoff, then try to win the big job by offending the fewest voters.

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