In March 2013, Los Angeles voters went to the polls and defeated Measure A, a half-cent sales tax increase that would have boosted city revenues by $215 million a year. For city leaders, the defeat prompted some soul-searching — not so much about the city's finances or about the electorate's lack of trust in its leadership, but rather about the electorate itself.
Turnout was low. In keeping with a long-term downward trend, just 21 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls.
In the weeks that followed, the turnout crisis supplanted the fiscal crisis as the dominant civic issue. City leaders formed two commissions, and both concluded that the best way to boost turnout is to move the date of city and school board elections.
Two years later, on March 3, voters will be asked to back Charter Amendments 1 and 2, which would move elections to June and November of even-numbered years.
Starting in 2020, half of the council and school board races would appear on the presidential ballot. The other half, along with races for mayor and other citywide offices, would be on the gubernatorial ballot starting in 2022.
The Yes campaign — which includes business and labor leaders — presents the matter as a common-sense question of civic health. Proponents argue that state and national races will draw more people to the polls, and those voters will pay more attention to municipal races.
“It's best for democracy when more people participate,” says Fernando Guerra, the lobbyist who co-chairs the campaign, and a political science professor at Loyola Marymount.
But the issue is not quite so straightforward. Any change in election practices is likely to advantage some players in the political process at the expense of others. Those effects have largely gone unexamined.
One effect of moving the election date is that tax measures — such as Measure A — will be easier to pass.
In a low turnout election, voters tend to be older, whiter and more conservative than the city at large. A broader electorate — featuring more young and minority voters — is generally more likely to support tax increases.
For that reason, L.A. County officials typically time their tax measures to coincide with presidential elections. If city elections were on the presidential cycle, city officials could give Measure A another try.
As Bertolt Brecht said, when the people lose the confidence of the government, the solution is to dissolve the people and elect a new one.
The effect on tax hikes is just one among many. In low-turnout elections, organized groups such as homeowners associations can have an outsized influence. As a result, council members are sensitive to organized opposition to development. NIMBYs are capable of stopping a project cold — or at least scaling it back. In higher-turnout elections, that power could be diluted.
Gary Toebben, president-CEO of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, argued that boosting turnout would “lessen the power of special interests.” Presumably, he is not referring to the chamber but rather to vocal neighborhood groups.
Other groups that fare poorly under the current rules could see their fortunes improve. In the last few election cycles, deep-pocketed interests have suffered a string of defeats to underfunded “community” candidates.
Of the last 15 seriously contested city and school board races, the candidate with greater financial backing lost 11 times. In the race for mayor, Eric Garcetti turned Wendy Greuel's labor support into the most potent weapon against her. Council candidates Joe Buscaino, Mitch O'Farrell and Paul Krekorian had similar successes.
In school board races, well-funded “reform” candidates have been wiped out almost across the board. Charter schools and labor groups spent $2 million on Antonio Sanchez, a 27-to-1 advantage over Monica Ratliff. She beat him anyway.
This could be taken as a sign of civic health. One could argue that the L.A. electorate is small but savvy, and it's not for sale. However, that too could change if the rules are changed.
Political consultant Eric Hacopian said that moving elections to November will drive up the cost of campaign mailers by four or five times, since mailers will have to be sent to a wider universe of likely voters.
If campaigning becomes more expensive, that would favor candidates who can raise more money. Ultimately, Hacopian argues, council races would come to resemble legislative contests.
Legislative candidates tend to get less media attention. Political reporters are focused on bigger races. Editorial boards often do not take the time to make an endorsement in lesser races when a president or governor is on the ballot. Voters are left to rely on mailers, and it's much more customary for the better-funded candidate to win.
Moving the elections, Hacopian says, “guarantees that the council will become like a third branch of the state Assembly.”
Supporters of the charter amendments point to the work of Sarah Anzia, a UC Berkeley professor who has studied the effects of election timing. Anzia's conclusion is that “special interests” fare better in off-cycle elections, because they are better able to mobilize their supporters.
Her research is focused on teachers unions. One of her conclusions is that in low-turnout races, a disproportionate share of voters are teachers.
Indeed, it appears that higher turnout would disadvantage L.A.'s teachers unions. But that would merely work in favor of another set of interests — the charter-school groups and reform advocates who now overwhelmingly outspend teachers unions in L.A. school board races.
If Charter Amendments 1 and 2 really would disadvantage special interests as a whole, it is odd that the major funders of the Yes campaign are Clear Channel Outdoor, which has been lobbying for digital billboards, and the L.A. County Federation of Labor.
Special interests aside, most local officeholders have a very specific interest in these amendments. If the ballot measures are approved, as many as 22 elected officials could get an extra 17 months in office.
To sync local elections to the legislative cycle, the council decided to extend the terms beginning in 2015 and 2017 from four years to five and a half years. (They could have shortened them to three and half years but opted not to.)
As a result, Council President Herb Wesson could remain in office until the end of 2020 — a 15-year run instead of 13½. Garcetti could be mayor through 2022 — serving 9½ years instead of eight.
This could make it easier for both of them to run for higher office. Wesson is said to be eyeing a seat on the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Mark Ridley-Thomas is termed out in — yes — 2020.
Led by Wesson, the council voted 12-to-1 to put the two measures on the ballot. The lone “no” vote came from Bernard Parks, who, because he is termed out of office this year, is one of three officials who would not get an extra 17 months.
In the 126 years since L.A. got its first city charter, elections have moved around a lot. Sometimes they were in May and June. For a long time the primary was in April. For a brief period more than a century ago, the primary was on the first Monday of December.
But throughout L.A. history — in periods of turmoil and calm, high turnout and low — elections have always been purposely offset from the distractions and competition of the presidential election.
“L.A. was a very strong Progressive stronghold,” says Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State L.A.. “Having odd-numbered elections was a Progressive reform. It insulated local politics from partisan elections.”
On March 3, voters will decide if that's a tradition whose time has run out.