A Compromise in Battle Over LA Election Calendar Changes

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)

As detailed recently in the LA Times there’s an emerging argument in Los Angeles over election reform.

Because of Tinseltown’s it-would-be-embarrassingly-low-voter-turnout-if-we-were-capable-of-embarassment turnout, reformers want to move city elections from odd-numbered years, like 2015, to line up with presidential elections, as in 2016. Since people still show up for presidential elections, L.A. won’t suffer from the same low turnout.

But an objection has been raised, and that objection is about taxes. Local ballot measures are on the same ballots as candidate elections. So wouldn’t moving elections to 2016 – with a more liberally minded electorate – make it easier to pass taxes? It’s not a moot question, because L.A.’s elected leaders have been eager to put tax measures on the ballot.

I’m sympathetic to the desire for more city revenues, but I think the tax-minded opponents of this move have a point. Putting ballot measures on the presidential election ballot is a bad idea — though not because of an outcome on taxes. It’s a bad idea because those local ballot measures are likely to get little scrutiny. Voters— faced with a full ballot of federal, state, and local elections, plus state ballot measures – will likely know little or nothing about local measures.

So here’s a compromise. Move the candidate elections to 2016 to boost turnout. But separate the ballot measures from the candidate elections.

Give ballot measures their own calendar. The best idea would be a mail-ballot only election schedule with three or four dates reserved each year in case ballot measures qualify. The timing should be connected to the city budget process.

That creates an opportunity for each ballot measure to have a moment of public scrutiny, separate from the din of candidate campaigns. Those who vote would be better informed about the measures.

And what would be the problem with such a change? Low turnout, you say. So what? We have low turnout already.

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