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Diminishing Returns: Where Have All the Voters Gone?




Let the hand-wringing begin! In last week’s primary election, just over 16 percent  of Los Angeles voters turned out at the polls, less than four years ago, which was less than the election before that, which was less than the election before that – and on and on. In Southern California municipalities – big city or small – elections draw about 20 percent of the vote. This is a problem in a democracy.

Low turnouts mean that more and more money gets spent on fewer and fewer voters, and when only a small minority of voters go to the polls, elected officials make major policy decisions based on a narrower group of constituents. In a democratic society, where people are empowered to make decisions that affect their lives, fewer voters mean diminished participation and less accountability.

In the early 1980s, when reformers first took a majority of seats on the City Council in Santa Monica, one of the first changes we launched made the dates of city elections coincide with state and national elections. As progressive activists, we knew that, except on very rare occasions, many more people turned out to vote for state and national offices than for local ones. We did not want the city run by the same small coterie from one side of town who were accustomed to holding power because so few voted from other neighborhoods. So now, instead of 20 percent turnouts for stand-alone city elections, more than 60 percent of Santa Monica voters cast ballots for local elected officials. That’s not good enough, as far as I am concerned, but it is better than before, and it is better than any city with stand-alone elections in our region.

A few years back, I received a phone call from someone in Culver City asking about my experience with changing the election dates. From our conversation, I knew she was fed up with making so many trips to the polls and worried about how much each of those special elections cost her city. It was equally clear that it had not occurred to her that changing the dates to coincide with elections for president and governor means more people would vote in the local election. If we truly believe in democracy, bigger turn out is the major reason for making the change.

A century ago, then-Progressives deliberately separated local elections from state and national elections in California and made local officials non-partisan positions. They wanted to unhitch local electeds from the machines of the national and state political parties. Before that reform, people ran for mayor or council as Democrats or Republicans, and the parties proposed, financed and controlled those candidates. Keeping the offices non-partisan works, but separating the polling dates doesn’t.

Voters simply fail to show up for municipal balloting. Even a major issue that affects everyone – like the sales tax increase on this primary ballot – gets decided by half of the tiny sliver of the population who manage to get to the polls. What kind of democracy is that?

Meanwhile critics of changing city election dates argue that people won’t get down the ballot to the local candidates at the bottom, but our experience in Santa Monica indicates that overwhelmingly, they will. The critics also argue that people who are too careless to bother to vote are too uninformed and so don’t deserve a voice, so we should stay with the current system. But people do have opinions, and they do know what affects them. It’s the odd-year calendar dates that discourage people from participating.

I have long felt that the solution to most problems in our democracy is more democracy, not less. That has certainly been true in Santa Monica. Average citizens remain engaged because 30 years ago, an activist city council decided to make it easier for people to vote for local officials. Los Angeles civic leaders should stop the hand-wringing and change the date of their city’s elections – and see what happens!

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