L.A. Holds Election to Decide What to Do About Low Turnout, and No One Shows Up

Angelino Heights polling place (Not pictured: tumbleweed)EXPAND
Angelino Heights polling place (Not pictured: tumbleweed)
Photo by Hillel Aron

Low turnout was the top citywide issue on Tuesday's ballot, so it's fitting that almost nobody showed up. As of this morning, the city clerk pegged turnout at 8.6 percent, though that number will creep up as more ballots are counted. With any luck, the final figure will almost touch 11 percent.

L.A. elections are starting to resemble the meetings of a ham radio society, where the top issue on each month's agenda is how to attract new members to the ham radio society.

The latest solution is to move the election dates. The handful of people who did go to the polls on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to shift the city's elections to even years, consolidating them with state and federal contests. Charter Amendments 1 and 2 passed with more than 76 percent of the vote.

In approving the measures, the voters broke with 126 years of tradition. Going back to the time of Progressive reformers, city elections have been offset from the presidential cycle in order to lessen partisan influence.

Given a choice between tradition and reform, Californians will take reform every time. That's how, in recent years, the state ended up with independent redistricting commissions and "jungle" primaries. Those reforms were intended to lessen partisanship, and the results are inconclusive at best.

Supporters of the charter amendments say there is little doubt that this reform will work.

"This is not something that's experimental," said Kathay Feng, co-chair of Citizens for Increased Voter Participation. "Cities across California have made this move, and they've seen a doubling in their turnout... I'm confident we're going to see much larger participation."

Dan Schnur, another campaign co-chair, called the result "a great win for the people of Los Angeles — tonight they won back their elections from the special interests who have controlled local politics for far too long."

About those special interests. Shortly before the polls closed, Citizens for Increased Voter Participation filed a campaign finance report indicating that IBEW Local 18 contributed $25,000 on Monday. An allied union, IBEW Local 11, gave another $10,000.

IBEW Local 18 represents most of the workers at the Department of Water and Power. Its leader, Brian D'Arcy, is the paragon of a City Hall special interest.

Feng is the executive director of Common Cause, a good-government group that routinely condemns the influence of unlimited campaign expenditures from outside groups. It's a bit unusual to see her taking a check from D'Arcy, who also poured millions of dollars into the 2013 mayor's race.

"What their motivations are for donating, I don’t know," Feng said. "I’m not the person who made the phone calls. The consultants made those phone calls. It does speak to a larger problem within city politics. We do have interests who have business before the city council who understand that contributing to a cause near and dear to an elected official is one way of impressing them."

In this case, Charter Amendments 1 and 2 were a key priority for Council President Herb Wesson. The amendments will extend his term by a year and a half, allowing him to remain on the council until 2020.

Early in the campaign, Citizens for Increased Voter Participation returned a check from AEG. Feng said that was because at the time AEG was urging the council to award it the contract to run the Greek Theatre. She called the decision a "no brainer." But she said the campaign decided not to return contributions from billboard companies and others who have longer-term issues at the council.

"There's any number of interests that have general business all the time, IBEW being one of many," Feng said. "The reality is that I think they’re always trying to seek influence."

Feng said she did not believe that special interests were donating because they believe their candidates would fare better in even-year elections.

Hans Johnson, a spokesman for Save Our City Elections, which urged a "no" vote, said he was not so sure. Moving the elections, he said, will create "a more expensive environment to run in and a more difficult environment for community candidates to be more viable." He argued the approval of the amendments will require more money for the city's matching fund program, which seeks to offset the influence of big-dollar donors.

While the change will undoubtedly lead to higher turnout, at least in November elections, it's an open question whether it will result in greater civic engagement. Supporters contend that people will be more focused on city matters if they know there's an election coming. But the opponents fear that city races will be drowned out by presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, and in the end, people will pay as little attention as they did on Tuesday.

Update: Citizens for Increased Voter Participation also took $15,000 from Californians for Energy Independence, a PAC sponsored by Chevron, Exxon, and other oil companies.

This likely would have been controversial among environmental groups, who are pushing for a citywide ban on fracking, had it been disclosed before the election.

Also worth noting, Feng says voter apathy is largely the result of cynicism about politics.


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