Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Race for LA mayor: Candidates try to turn around low voter turnout

Emanuel Pleitez is hoping to bring voters to the polls on March 5 through door-to-door canvassing. One of his rivals, Eric Garcetti, is reaching out to young voters to increase participation.
Emanuel Pleitez is hoping to bring voters to the polls on March 5 through door-to-door canvassing. One of his rivals, Eric Garcetti, is reaching out to young voters to increase participation.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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Los Angeles municipal elections are known for low voter turnout, but this year’s mayoral candidates are hoping that a small increase in participation will lead them to victory.

The city’s last competitive mayor’s race — between Antonio Villaraigosa and Jim Hahn in 2005 — saw 34 percent voter turnout in the general election. Four years prior to that, turnout was at 38 percent, and the 1993 race between Richard Riordan and Mike Woo drew 45 percent of voters to the polls.

Eric Garcetti is taking a page from President Barack Obama’s playbook and appealing to voters ages 18 to 29. In both the 2001 and 2005 mayoral races, just 9 percent of those voters completed a ballot, according to exit polls from the Los Angeles Times. The Garcetti campaign hopes to increase that turnout to 12 percent with celebrity endorsements and fundraisers that feel more like social events.

The strategy may be working. The Los Angeles County Young Democrats endorsed Garcetti, 42, in part because he was a young Democrat – just 29 – when he first ran for the Los Angeles City Council.

“I think a lot of young voters are turned off because most of the politicians are above 50 or even above 60, so I think it’s having a new wave of new leaders and a new wave of elected officials,” said Daniel Lopez, president of the L.A. County Young Democrats.

Pleitez tries something else

Mayoral candidate Emanuel Pleitez is trying a different approach. Without the same kind of money or big name endorsements as his rivals, Pleitiez has taken to canvassing neighborhoods. He often sprints from door to door to meet voters who may have shown up for a presidential race, but who are unlikely to turn out for a local election.

“Voters need to take their own responsibility and go out there and vote,” Pleitez said. “But it’s also the elected officials’ fault. Elected officials need to engage voters and actually get them excited about something and inspired, and that’s what’s been missing for a long time here in the city.”

Former Controller Laura Chick hit on just that point in a recent op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. One reason for the low turnout is that Los Angeles municipal elections are held on off years, so just months after Angelenos vote for federal and state offices, they have to return to the polls to vote for local leaders. In her piece, Chick wrote that special interests benefit from low turnout elections. The folks behind campaigns may benefit, too.

“Lobbyists, campaign managers, people in the business of buying time for campaign ads and anything that goes into an election, want L.A. to have its own, separate election cycle because it means business – it means money to them,” Chick said.

One way to cut down on the number of elections would be to implement instant runoff voting, something that San Francisco currently uses, according to David Holtzman with the League of Women Voters. Instant runoff voting allows voters to rank their choices. That means if their first choice doesn’t win, their vote can count toward another candidate.

“You’d only need to have one round of voting. That actually makes the elections more fair and would give you more of a chance to freely express your preferences. You wouldn’t be wasting your vote or letting a spoiler effect occur if your first choice candidate didn’t make it to the final round,” Holtzman said.

On March 5, assuming no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will advance to the May runoff. 

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