Like a man who bangs his head against the wall to cure a headache, Los Angeles will hold more municipal elections this March. The certain result: another low-turnout embarrassment that draws the usual lamentations about how our democracy is in peril. Enough crying. If California’s civic leaders are so sure that Los Angeles elections are democratic disasters, then why don’t they declare an official state of emergency? In other California contexts, disasters draw interventions and lead to big changes. After an earthquake or fire, officials can declare emergencies and take decisive action without following the usual regulations. When California school districts don’t meet academic standards or go underwater financially, the state can take them over. When law enforcement agencies fail, the courts or the federal government can assume oversight.
If there were an established method for reconstituting poorly attended elections, Los Angeles’ would be among the first in line. School board and special elections have seen voter turnout percentages in the single digits. During the 2013 L.A. city elections, the turnout of registered voters barely exceeded 20 percent, even with a competitive mayoral race. Even though L.A. County has 3 million more people and 1 million more registered voters than the Bay Area counties put together, more votes are cast in the Bay Area than in L.A. After the county’s miserably low turnout in November’s state elections, new California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who is from L.A., told the Sacramento Bee: “You still have those counties where you have 70 percent turnout. And then you have L.A. County. It’s a shame.”
That shame has triggered commissions and recommendations, but very little action. Today, only one turnout-boosting proposal has traction — moving municipal and school elections to even-numbered years so they coincide with high-turnout gubernatorial and presidential elections. But even if voters approve that change (in this March’s low-turnout elections), it won’t take effect until 2020.