One Man, Two Votes—Why Not?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

L.A. Asked Me To Vote In Its Mayoral Election. Sure, It’s Illegal, But It’s Also a Good Idea.

When a politically minded friend recently told me he was voting for Kevin James for mayor of Los Angeles, I told him I’d have to call the police.

I have nothing against James, mind you. I just have respect for the law, and for geography. My friend lives in West Hollywood, a city with its own council and local government, separate from the city of Los Angeles. It’s a simple concept: A person must live in the city of Los Angeles to vote for mayor of Los Angeles. At least, so I thought, until I opened my mail a few weeks ago and found that the City of L.A. had sent my wife and me sample ballots for the March 5 city elections.

This was curious. I can see the City of L.A. from my house, to borrow a line from Sarah Palin, but I haven’t lived there since the fall of 2011, when I moved to the city of South Pasadena. (The reason for my move, in a word: schools).

At first I thought the sample ballot was the result of mail forwarding. But no, the city of L.A. had printed our names and South Pasadena address right there on the sample ballots. We were instructed to vote at the Westside Jewish Community Center, on Olympic Boulevard and Spaulding Avenue, about 17 miles from our current house via the 110 and 10 freeways. If we couldn’t make it there—and who wants to bother with the crosstown traffic?—we could request a mail ballot to be sent to us in South Pasadena.

I was sorely tempted to show up. I love bureaucratic errors that work in my favor. (How often does that happen?) And even though I don’t live in the City of L.A., I shop and do some work there. Most important, the city’s leaders set policies that affect the whole region. I have opinions about the leading mayoral contenders, and even stronger opinions about the sales-tax measure on the ballot—a sales tax that I’d have to pay almost every day, given my shopping habits. Don’t I deserve to vote on matters that would affect me?

This is a very Californian headache. Our state is barnacled in municipalities and local governments. We literally have thousands of them, so many that few Californians can tell you who represents them. Many people like my friend, who is relatively new to greater L.A., fail even to notice what city they live in.

That’s why, when you ask Californians where they live, they often mention a region—the San Joaquin Valley, the Bay Area, the Inland Empire—and not their particular municipality. Our media are regional entities, our sports teams have regional fan bases, and our commutes are regional. But our elections aren’t. When a government in the region’s biggest city gets to make major policy decisions on economic development and transportation for the whole region, the little cities get shut out.

With such thoughts in mind, I called the election division of the city clerk’s office in L.A. to ask if they’d mind if I went ahead and voted. They told me they would. It would be illegal, a clerk patiently explained. When I asked why L.A. had sent me a ballot, the clerk speculated that a city vendor responsible for tracking voters who move had probably sent it to me automatically.

I decided to take the clerk’s advice and respect the law. Besides, I want to vote in the South Pasadena special mail-in election, also March 5, on raising parcel taxes to give our schools some cushion against the madness of the state’s thoroughly broken education funding system.

But I also felt there must be a way around this either/or business.

Wouldn’t permitting neighboring non-residents to vote in L.A. elections, or in the elections of any major California regional city, be good for us all? Such a system could bind us together—and it could work. Just give a vote—or some fraction of a vote—to those who live within a certain number of miles of the city, or those who work within it. It’s the least L.A. can do in return for making me watch its candidates’ wooden TV ads. Plus, given the miserably low turnout in city elections, doesn’t L.A. need every voter it can get?

City boundaries have their place, but L.A. is more than just a city. The next time I see my friend, I’m going to tell him to find a way to vote for the next mayor of Los Angeles. The law be damned; it’s the neighborly thing to do.

This piece was written for Zocalo Public Square

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