Proposal to move Los Angeles elections passes key committee

The Los Angeles City Council's Rules Committee voted Friday to consolidate city elections in an effort to increase voter participation.
The Los Angeles City Council's Rules Committee voted Friday to consolidate city elections in an effort to increase voter participation.
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A Los Angeles City Council committee Friday recommended moving city elections to coincide with presidential and gubernatorial races to increase voter turnout. 

Just one in four registered voters showed up last year to cast ballots for the Los Angeles mayoral race between Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel. Earlier this year, a special election for the Los Angeles Unified school board drew only 9.5 percent of registered voters in the district. 

"Our turnout is embarrassing. It is dismal. We are in crisis and something actually needs to be done to adjust that," said council President Herb Wesson, who chairs the Rules, Elections and Intergovernmental Relations committee, which made Friday's recommendation. 

The change would ultimately have to be approved by voters because it requires a change to the city charter. 

In August, the Ethics Commission suggested the city offer a lottery jackpot to voters who participate in city elections. That's working its way through the process. City staffers are preparing a budget and proposal to offer a lottery in the next special election.

"I'm going to make sure we continue the discussion on the lottery and I'll be honest with you, it's such an emotional issue, it makes people participate," Wesson said. 

Los Angeles now holds elections in March and May of odd-numbered years. They're called "off-cycle" because they don't line up with larger statewide or federal races - and that was by design. The idea was that local campaigns would get more attention and money if they did not have to compete with larger races. 

Off-cycle elections are fairly common. At least a quarter of California cities hold stand-alone municipal races, according to California Forward. 

But a 2002 study from the Public Policy Institute of California found turnout was 36 percent higher in cities that held their elections at the same time as presidential and gubernatorial races - in June and November of even-numbered years. 

The idea of moving city elections was previously recommended by the Election Reform Commission and the 2020 Commission.

The Los Angeles City Council is expected to ask the City Attorney on Wednesday to draft a measure to consolidate elections. That measure would appear on the March 2015 ballot. 

If Angelenos ultimately agree to move elections, the change would take effect in 2020 for even-numbered city council districts and odd-numbered Board of Education districts.

The remaining council and L.A. Unified districts would be up for election again in 2022 since only half of the council and school board are elected at a time. 

Making it all happen would require the city to extend the terms of some elected officials by 17 months. This would allow the terms of office to sync up with the new election cycle.

Wesson supports extending the terms rather than holding special elections for the 17-month gap because he said it would save the city $36 million. 

"The voters would prefer to have that $36 million spent to take care of their wants and needs and desires," he said. 

Other recommendations the Rules Committee sent up to the L.A. City Council Friday for consideration include: