Big Cities, Small Turnout: What (if Anything) to DO?

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[Image courtesy of latimesgraphics]

Tuesday’s municipal election in Los Angeles produced the latest in a long line of turnout figures that are dismaying local observers. Although ballots are still being counted (and, thanks to a recent law change, can still arrive to be counted if postmarked by Election Day) it appears that less than 10% of the city’s voters cast their ballots on Tuesday.

To combat that phenomenon, Los Angeles voters approved two charter amendments that will move city elections to even years (when federal and state elections are also on the ballot) beginning in 2020. Here’s what L.A. Times said about those questions in its endorsement:

In the wake of the pathetic 23% turnout in the last mayor’s race, city officials appointed a Municipal Elections Reform Commission. After interviewing experts in elections, politics and civic engagement, its primary proposal was to reschedule L.A.’s elections to coincide with presidential and gubernatorial elections. Indeed, research shows that switching to so-called on-cycle elections results in significantly higher voter turnout. How? Simply by capturing the voters who show up in greater numbers for higher-profile state and federal elections…

The way the system works now, Los Angeles holds off-cycle elections, with primaries and runoffs scheduled in March and May of odd-numbered years. Over the last decade, turnout has ranged from 10% to 34%. Cities with elections in June and November of even-numbered years typically have almost double the turnouts. In 2012, for example, Alhambra, Downey, Pomona and Pasadena drew 49% to 54% turnouts.

And yet, changing the election dates isn’t likely to magically solve the problem. As the Times endorsement notes:

The City Council chose to align mayoral and citywide elections with gubernatorial elections starting in 2022, and to match the lower-impact council races with the presidential elections starting in 2020. If officials wanted the highest possible turnout for the highest-impact elections, they would have paired mayoral elections with presidential elections, which typically draw 70% to 80% turnout in the November runoffs. Also, there are more local races in a mayoral election year, so combining those ballots with the presidential would have meant higher turnout for a greater number of local races.

What’s more, the city’s March mayoral primaries tend to draw more voters than June primaries in gubernatorial years. Since 70% of city races are decided in the primary, some people worry that the city might not see a big boost in turnout by moving the mayoral race to the gubernatorial year …

There is also concern that local elections will be overshadowed by the national and state races. Local candidates will appear at the end of a long ballot that could include dozens of high-profile races. Campaigning may become more difficult and expensive as local candidates fight for voter attention and limited airtime. [There was a report on Twitter late yesterday that the City Council President plans to seek state legislation to move city contests up on ballots so they don’t get overlooked. – ed.]

Finally, moving the election won’t address the underlying causes of low turnout — the civic malaise that prevents so many Angelenos from becoming engaged in the democratic process and leaves them feeling that local elections don’t matter. Charter Amendments 1 and 2 treat a symptom of the disease, but not the disease.

And, indeed, Los Angeles isn’t the only big city facing this problem. Today’s Times has a piece (with the graphic above) that shows how turnout in big cities has declined over time to its low current levels. The problem, quite simply, is that people are more focused on federal and state elections:

Presidential elections receive a tremendous amount of money and media attention, and voters often believe it’s the election that will have the greatest impact on their lives, said Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. But much less attention is paid at the municipal level.

“It’s often these local governments that determine policy issues about policing, education, transportation, infrastructure, all of these things that more directly relate to people’s everyday lives than who the president of the United States is,” McDonald said, noting many voters don’t make that connection.

That wasn’t always the case, McDonald said, noting that there was greater participation at the local level in the 19th century, when cities had strong party systems.

“Much of the social fabric was built around political parties and these political machines that operated at the time were paying people for their votes, and if they weren’t paying for them, they were organizing them in a mass way to participate,” he said.

Given that we don’t want voters being paid to vote, what else can be done to improve turnout? Likely not much:

“Mail balloting [which California already has] seems to be one solution,” McDonald said. “The other is just holding an interesting election, but we really can’t dictate holding an interesting election.”

NOTE: That concept of “interesting” could be tested soon in Chicago, where a low turnout in the primary election could produce a high(er)-turnout runoff as incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel tries to hold his seat against challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. If it does, it will suggest that turnout fixes are driven more by political considerations than systemic ones.

It’s clear that the goal of the new charter amendments in Los Angeles is to use systemic change to make municipal elections more “interesting” – even if only by association – by pairing them with federal and state races.

Time will tell if it works – if nothing else, there’s not much further down for municipal turnout to go in Los Angeles and other big cities.

Stay tuned!

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