As the 2016 election came to a close last month, American voters breathed a sigh of relief that the exhausting campaigns were finally over. However, the citizens of Los Angeles cannot relax just yet -- important elections for the city’s mayor, as well as eight of its 15 city council seats, are rapidly approaching. The primary election is scheduled for March 7th, mere months after our new president is inaugurated, and the general election will be held on May 16th.
FairVote’s research has consistently shown that when elections are held too frequently, turnout suffers. Our 2016 Federal Primary Runoff report shows that turnout drops precipitously—by an average of 39%--between a state’s primary election and its primary runoff. Odd-year and mid-year elections are especially prone to low turnout. Turnout was just 9% of the citizen voting age population in the Dallas, TX, May 2015 mayoral election, 10% in the March 2015 mayoral election in Tampa, FL, and 3% in the Knoxville, TN, mayoral election in September 2015. This trend extends to Los Angeles’s municipal elections, which saw a pitiful 10% turnout in March 2015.
Fortunately, the one in ten eligible Los Angeles voters who turned out in March 2015 recognized that this problem needed to be fixed and passed a charter amendment to move the date of municipal elections. As a result, Los Angeles’s city elections after 2017 will be switched to even years, lining up with gubernatorial and presidential elections. Other major cities with odd year elections, such as Dallas or Houston, could increase voter turnout by following Los Angeles’s lead and holding their municipal elections in even years.
Los Angeles could improve its elections (and its budgetary situation) even further by adopting ranked choice voting (RCV). In 2017, 11 candidates are competing in the city’s mayoral primary in March, with two advancing to the May general election. Under RCV, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference, a winner with majority support can be elected in a single, high turnout, November election even when there are many candidates. RCV eliminates the need to hold two rounds of elections, saving the city money. Ranked choice voting, combined with even year November elections, will help cities ensure that their elections are democratic and truly representative of their constituents.