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Want fewer elections? Vote more

When democracy turns into yawnocracy, the special interests rule the day.

January 30, 2009|JOEL STEIN

Do you really expect me to vote again?

On March 3, we Angelenos are supposed to vote for the mayor, City Council and five ballot measures. And then, on May 19, there's the city general election. Since I moved to L.A. four years ago, there's been an average of three elections a year. The only people who vote this often are ancient Greeks, kindergarten classes and anyone with an Internet connection.

Here's how it works everywhere else in the country: You vote once every four years. If you're super-interested, you show up on the other even years to vote for your U.S. representative, who is really a stand-up person even though the other 434 are self-interested crooks.

Los Angeles decided to vote at weird times so that people could focus on local issues, which exemplifies the problem with letting people who focus on local issues make decisions. I haven't read any studies on this, but I'm guessing that more people are likely to show up when elections are held on Election Day. After all, you can sing and dance and put on a little groundhog show, but no one is paying attention if you pop out of your hole in July.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, February 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 15 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Voter turnout: Joel Stein's Friday column said 4.7% of registered voters cast ballots in the 2005 mayoral runoff between James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa. The correct figure is 28%.

Maybe 10% of registered voters will vote on March 3 and possibly fewer on May 19. In the far more exciting 2005 mayoral runoff between James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa, 4.7% of registered voters showed up. And most of them were probably sleeping with the mayor.

Not only is it expensive to hold this many elections, it's not good for democracy. When I asked Republican political consultant and Angeleno Mike Murphy what the effects are of such a low turnout, he said: "The interest groups can control the election by turning out their troops. Democracy turns into yawnocracy, and the interest-group string pullers win every time." I could not tell if Murphy thought that was a good or a bad thing.

There are, in fact, five ballot measures in this election that may or may not be important. One of them, Measure B, would have the Department of Water and Power putting up lots of solar panels. It has $170,000 in contributions from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union that includes workers for the Department of Water and Power. The opposition has just $1,500 in donations from random people who are mad at workers at the Department of Water and Power. The other four ballot measures were so obscure it was impossible to find information about them online before getting totally bored and giving up.

I wonder how politicians who aren't funded by interest groups pinpoint actual voters in the huge sea of nonvoters. I know they must have some very accurate techniques because no one has bothered me.

David Hernandez, who is running for mayor, can be Googled by name only if you're willing to scroll down past four pages of sites about the David Hernandez who was the 12th-place finisher on the seventh season of "American Idol." He's an expert at reaching the members of the yawn- ocracy. He says that simply by attending community meetings and homeowner organizations, otherwise known as gatherings for old people, he can find nearly all the voters.

"The ones that know about the election are the angry people and the special interests," Hernandez says. "How are other people going to figure out that we're voting again? They don't even know if they live in Los Angeles. Valley Village? Yes, you do. Westchester? Yeah. You try to explain the County of Los Angeles and their eyes roll." Even Hernandez, who has championed such losing causes as saving public-access cable and putting the cross back on the L.A. city seal, says this one is pretty hard.

I know that as a newspaper columnist I'm supposed to berate a public that votes for "American Idol" but not for mayor. But I don't blame the voters. Even the worst episodes of "Idol" aren't as boring as Measure A, which asks if we should have an independent fire department assessor -- a decision that should be voted on only by the independent fire department assessor and the independent fire department assessor's spouse.

The only way to scare politicians into stopping these constant elections is, ironically, to do the one thing we don't want to do: vote. So join my Facebook group: Voters Who Hate Voting. We only need about 20 to form a hugely powerful bloc. We'll threaten to specifically vote against all the measures and candidates the incumbents support unless they agree to restrict voting to every two years on Election Day.

Otherwise, Mayor, the fire department is going to be assessed dependently.

--

We're playing hardball.

jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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