As a native Los Angeles resident, there are so many things to be proud of about my home town--beaches, great food, a diverse community--but turnout is not one of them. Los Angeles most recently had primary city elections for a number of city council and school board seats, in which the LA Times reported an estimated 8.6% of registered voters turned out to the polls, causing the winners of the council seats to win with less than 10,000 votes for districts that represent a quarter of a million people. Candidates win their seat outright if they receive 50% of the votes cast but if this does not happen, candidates continue to a runoff election in May. One seat in the council, the District 4 seat stretching from Sherman Oaks to Glendale to Beverly Hills, did not receive the 50% threshold necessary to have a candidate win, causing the top contenders Carolyn Ramsay and David Ryu to advance to a runoff with only 15% and 14% of the votes in their district. Only 61 votes separated Tomas O Grady from David Ryu to go on to the runoff. Many other seats in the Board of Education will similarly have to succumb to an instant runoff including Districts 3, 5, and 7. Here we see how a low number of voters, 15% and 14%, are making decisions about representatives for 100% of their district.
Interestingly enough, the few people who did make it out to the polls voted to change the City Charter Code to make city elections in June and November of even number years instead of odd number years (how it is set up currently), coinciding with state and federal elections. The election date change was brought forth with the intention to improve the turnout level of voters in municipal elections. This is a crucial structural reform that will cause more meaningful elections as more people show up to city elections that coincide with state and federal ones. Voters in Los Angeles will experience less voter fatigue with this new change, as voters will not have to keep track of as many voting days--they will no longer have to to think about whether its even or odd years; March, May, June, or November. It has become more simple for voters, as all elections will be held in June and November in even years.
While we applaud Los Angeles voters for taking this important first step, we at FairVote think that this is not enough. Changing to even years will certainly improve voter turnout, but it is not the best solution, as it has been shown that June primaries still bring a small amount of registered voters to their polling places. The 2012 California June primary, for example, had a 39% turnout rate compared to November general election that brought out 65% of registered voters. Additionally, for Congressional District 31, 36% of the electorate voted for the seat in the June primary elections whereas 68% voted in the November elections. Elections are largely determined by who wins the primary elections, especially in LA’s municipal election system, meaning that a very small electorate is determining the pool of candidates for a large, diverse city.
To have the most meaningful elections possible with the most voices heard, cities like Los Angeles should consider consolidating elections to November with a ranked-choice voting system. Instead of holding a separate primary election date, Los Angeles could have one single election date in November in which all eligible candidates are on the ballot and voters rank candidates in order of preferences, acting as an instant runoff. This would save voters from confusion, save the city money, and save polling places from low turnout.
Los Angeles only has to look up north to the Bay Area to see what a difference this can make on city election turnout. Oakland had a similar problem with June primary turnout levels and they found the best solution was turning to a ranked choice voting system in November elections. In 2010, when Oakland had the June primary system, 66,891 voters went to the polls versus 122,268 that voted in the November general, an 83% increase in turnout from the primary to the general election. Compare this to after Oakland turned to a November ranked choice voting system. Before the use of ranked choice voting November elections, city council district 7 only brought only 3,797 winning votes, a fraction of the Oakland population. After ranked choice voting, 8,733 winning votes were casted, a increase of winning votes of of 130%. An average increase in winning votes for all city council seats after ranked choice voting was 37%--for school districts, a staggering average increase of 90%.
This timing and voting change is especially important to voters in minority groups, as minority communities are less likely to to vote in primary elections as they are in general November elections. An analysis of the June 2004 primary in Oakland showed that turnout was between 47% and 54% less in census tracts predominantly made up of African Americans, Asian-Pacific Islanders, and/or Latinos. The difference was only 32% less in predominantly white tracts. Los Angeles is largely racially diverse, with over 70% of its residents being people of color. Because people of color dominate the LA population, and because white residents are disproportionately represented in primary elections, elections are not representative of the diverse opinions found in the city. With the use of ranked choice voting, more people will have their voice heard, their votes will be more meaningful because voters will be ranking their preferences, and representatives and policies will represent the needs of the people. Ranked choice voting would allow communities like my low income predominantly Latino community in Los Angeles to harness the power of their vote in the most meaningful way.