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Shift in Election Schedule Is Urged

Hoping to boost voter turnout, group wants to align city elections with congressional races.

May 30, 2003|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Alarmed by a voter turnout of just 9.8% in the Los Angeles municipal election this month, a business group proposed a ballot measure Thursday to change the schedule of city elections to coincide with congressional contests.

The Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. said such a change to the City Charter would boost voter interest and save the city the cost of holding separate elections.

"We cannot continue to have city elections with 9% turnout," said the group's chairman, Fred Gaines. "It's a democracy in name only, when that few vote."

City Council President Alex Padilla, who heads the committee that reviews election reforms, is open to reviewing the idea, according to a spokesman. But he and others noted that there are some potential drawbacks to such a change, and no guarantee that the switch would significantly increase voter participation in city races.

"A potential drawback would be that it would be difficult for local candidates to get their messages across in a crowded media market, if you also had congressional races," said David Gershwin, a spokesman for Padilla.

He noted that the City Council has already acted to improve turnout by moving up the general election from April to March so it would not coincide with religious and school holidays. Also, runoff elections were moved up to before Memorial Day so voters would not be distracted by vacations and holidays.

City Clerk Mike Carey said the potential harm to local candidates sharing a crowded ballot with federal candidates was a factor in his decision in the past not to recommend such a change. He added that partisan politics would probably be interjected into nonpartisan city races if council candidates were campaigning at the same time as candidates for Congress.

Carey said the May 20 election was not a good gauge of voter turnout, because only one citywide question appeared on the ballot -- whether to approve community college bonds. In the two council districts where there were runoff races, turnout was more than 20%.

The city holds its biennial elections in odd-numbered years. Congressional elections also occur every two years, but in even-numbered years, with a primary in March and general election in November.

A change in the city schedule would require extending the terms of sitting officeholders by a year and a half.

The Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. is proposing a City Charter amendment that would allow the extension and not count it against the officeholders' current term limits. Supporters hope that the City Council will approve their proposal and place it on an upcoming municipal ballot.

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