Like a man who bangs his head against the wall to cure a headache, Los Angeles will hold more municipal elections this March. The certain result: another low-turnout embarrassment that draws the usual lamentations about how our democracy is in peril.
Enough with the crying. If California’s civic leaders are so sure that Los Angeles elections are democratic disasters, then why don’t they respond as they would in other kinds of disasters—and declare an official state of emergency?
In other California contexts, disasters draw interventions that offer the opportunity to make big changes. After an earthquake or fire or mudslide, officials can declare emergencies in order to take quick, decisive action, without following the usual regulations, until a damaged place is restored to normal. When California school districts don’t meet academic standards or go underwater financially, the state can take them over and try to fix them. When law enforcement or transportation agencies fail, the courts or the federal government can appoint overseers empowered to take extraordinary actions. Even neighborhoods that are persistently poor can be designated for intervention.
If there were a similar established method for reconstituting poorly attended elections, Los Angeles would be among the first in line. School board and special elections have seen voter turnout percentages in the single digits. During the last L.A. city elections in 2013, the turnout of registered voters barely exceeded 20 percent, even with a competitive mayoral race, won by Eric Garcetti with fewer votes than any successful mayoral candidate since the Great Depression.
Los Angeles elections draw so few voters that Southern California has effectively ceded political leadership of the state. Even though L.A. County has 3 million more people and 1 million more registered voters than the Bay Area counties put together, more votes are cast in the Bay Area than in L.A. After the miserably low Southland turnout in last November’s state elections, new California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who is from L.A., threw up his hands, telling the Sacramento Bee: “Every county is different. You still have those counties where you have 70 percent turnout. And then you have L.A. County. It’s a shame.”
That shame has triggered commissions and recommendations, but not enough action. Only one proposal from two recent commissions have gained traction—moving L.A. city and school elections to even-numbered years so they coincide with high-turnout gubernatorial and presidential elections. But even if voters approve that change (in the low-turnout March election), it won’t take effect until 2020.
As with any disaster, L.A. elections present opportunities for bigger, faster changes—if we seize them. Voter turnout is declining in much of the industrialized world. We need a place where election administrators, scholars, and citizens can test the many turnout-boosting ideas now being suggested. L.A. would be the perfect lab.
The very thing that makes politics and governance in L.A. so confusing—all the different governments and elections in 88 cities, 150 or so school districts, and hundreds of special districts—makes this a great place for experimenting. Instead of trying just one idea in one big jurisdiction, there are so many elections here that many experiments could be conducted at the same time. And with so little to lose in voter turnout, experimenting with different ways of holding elections in L.A. would pose little risk.
To start, California leaders should put their heads together and tweak state and local laws to make L.A. an election emergency zone. Exempt local election officials from as many laws and rules as possible for at least a decade, and maybe longer, until our turnout is back in the neighborhood of the Bay Area’s. Then provide funds for officials (especially the creative L.A. county registrar Dean Logan) to experiment with any strategy they think might boost turnout. Appoint a commission with a research staff to monitor the resulting experiments, and report back to the public.
What would these experiments look like? One idea recently debated by L.A.’s City Council is offering cash prizes to voters in a lottery. Why not take similar precincts in different parts of Los Angeles and try different cash-for-votes schemes, and see what, if any, work best? (Perhaps we could find out if Aristotle was right when he suggested in his Politics that “the poor should be paid to attend” political assemblies “and the rich fined if they do not attend.”)
Many experts are convinced that L.A. needs to ramp up its vote-by-mail efforts, while others argue that the mail is a poor way to reach young people in the age of email. So why not experiment with robust vote-by-mail in some parts of Los Angeles—and see who’s right?
The good news is that there is no shortage of ideas, small and large, that could be tested. Could the signage used in polling places be changed to draw people in? Could holding voting in nontraditional venues—shopping centers, malls, movie theaters, supermarkets, In-N-Out Burger—boost turnout? What if we made the “I Voted” stickers bigger—or gave out “I Voted” T-shirts instead of stickers?
The recent report by the City of Los Angeles Municipal Elections Reform Commission offers a roadmap for ideas to try. Would allowing voters to vote at any precinct in the city (not just near their homes, but near their offices or their children’s schools) boost turnout, as the commission suggested? Could establishing high school civics classes tied to voting (Orange County has such a program) make a difference? And what if the city of L.A. decided not to give parking tickets on Election Day (at least around polling stations)?
I’d urge even more dramatic experiments in the L.A. Election Emergency Zone. It would be interesting to see if making local elections partisan affairs might attract more voters in this partisan age (as some political scientists predict). And why not have hackers break into an election and alter results—so that we all might learn what to do in such cases?
It would almost certainly require state authorization to get this grand experiment started. Big problems in L.A.—brutal cops, failed jails, terrible Dodgers and Clippers owners—very rarely get fixed by Angelenos themselves. An ambitious election experiment would cost California money, but the state would benefit from what is learned here. California is near the bottom nationwide in percentage of eligible citizens who register and vote. It will be hard to improve upon this ranking until Los Angeles elections are no longer disasters.