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March 8, 2013
Editorial: Elections don't work if few voters show up

(March 8 -- By the Editorial Board)

Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States by population, held its mayoral primary Tuesday and hardly anybody bothered to show up.

Turnout was a dismal 16.2 percent, with just 293,000 of 1.8 million registered voters casting ballots. Winners of two City Council seats drew fewer than 3,000 votes each.

Not just the mayor and City Council races were on Tuesday's ballot. A city sales tax increase was voted down and a closely watched city school board election that pitted education reformers against candidates backed by the city's powerful teachers union for control of the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District was decided, too, at least in part.

A number of factors accounted for low voter turnout, principally lackluster mayoral candidates and voter fatigue after months of non-stop electioneering in a spirited presidential race.

But the fact that Los Angeles holds its elections in odd-numbered, off years clearly depressed turnout as well. It will require a city charter amendment, but the timing of elections needs to change, not just in Los Angeles but in scores of other California cities that hold their local elections in off years.

In a 2007 study that looked at turnout in 332 mayoral elections in 38 large cities over 25 years, University of Michigan professor Neal Caren concluded that timing of the elections was the most important factor in turnout. "Elections held concurrent with presidential elections increase turnout by 27 percent, while elections held concurrent with other state and federal elections increase turnout by 4 percent," the study concluded.

Progressive era reforms that sought to reduce the influence of local party organizations on municipal government led to separating municipal elections from the traditional electoral calendar. With parties marginalized it also led, unintentionally, to fewer get-out-the-vote resources in play, less civic engagement and lower turnout.

Less political party participation does not mean that narrow special interests don't influence municipal elections. Well organized public employees' organizations, for example, or teachers unions can get their members to the polls and easily dominate outcomes in low turnout elections.

The City of Angels faces big challenges, not the least of which is a staggering deficit that may require deep service cuts to resolve.

But widespread civic disengagement, which Tuesday's record-low turnout exposed, is another big problem for Los Angeles. Changing election day won't solve the problem entirely, but it can help.

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