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Bringing back L.A. voters

Want to boost the number of Angelenos taking part in city elections? Get rid of the nonpartisan ballot.

March 07, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

The municipal elections in Los Angeles this week were another in a long series of democratic catastrophes.

That's not to say that anything illegal or even irregular occurred. Actually, it would be something of a novelty -- almost a relief -- to run across someone who cared enough to subvert an L.A. election. The sad truth is that Los Angeles has long been the sick man of urban American politics, and the numbers tell the story.

The city's population is estimated at 3.8 million people. About 1.6 million of them are registered to vote, which actually is a fairly impressive figure, given the number of Angelenos under 18 and the large number of immigrants who are not citizens. Still, in an election with municipal offices to fill and local propositions to decide, just 239,374 of those registered voters -- 15% of the electorate -- turned out to cast ballots.

Antonio Villaraigosa was reelected as mayor of America's second-largest city with the votes of only 127,955 people -- 8% of the city's registered voters and 3% of its population. Jack Weiss and Carmen Trutanich both made it into the runoff for city attorney without cracking the 100,000-vote mark. (Weiss, who has been on the City Council for eight years, received just 80,985 votes citywide; Trutanich just 59,804.)

If those seem like pale mandates, consider those in the City Council races. Eight of the legislative branch's 15 seats were theoretically up for grabs. Just two incumbents -- Dennis Zine (14,782) and Bill Rosendahl (16,728) -- managed to persuade 10,000 or more voters to cast ballots for them, although each council district contains about 250,000 people. The two candidates who slipped into a runoff for the only seriously contested seat -- David Vahedi and Paul Koretz -- managed only 5,745 and 5,685 votes, respectively. The council's president, Eric Garcetti, received just 7,210 votes. Janice Hahn, who possesses a storied local political name, received only 9,250 votes.

The truth is that the council vote totals conceal one of Los Angeles' dirty little political secrets. Not a single council member running in a heavily Latino or African American district won his or her seat with more than 10,000 votes. In this week's election, Ed Reyes received 6,565 votes; Richard Alarcon, 7,380; Jan Perry, 5,801. Garcetti and Hahn, both white, represent districts with large non-white populations.

And the same patterns were true in the last election cycle.

In recent years, lots of old verities about L.A. politics have fallen by the wayside. Today, the city is more homogeneously liberal and ethnically integrated than it ever has been. Differences in social attitudes and voting patterns between the Valley and the rest of the city have vanished, as has the division between the Palisades (traditionally more Republican and conservative) and the rest of the Westside.

The one historic pattern that continues is a troubling one -- political participation in council districts with Anglo majorities outstrips those with predominantly African American or Latino electorates, just as it always has. The only sitting council members who won their most recent race with totals over 10,000 -- Zine, Rosendahl and, in the last election cycle, Wendy Greuel (10,575) and Greig Smith (14,749) -- represent districts where most of their quarter of a million constituents are Anglos. Something is decidedly out of whack here because black and Latino participation in the last presidential election was substantial. Moreover, more than one-third of the city's population has enough interest in electoral politics per se to register to vote. And it matters, because the city's African American (10.6%) and Latino (48.5%) populations together come to 59.1% of the population.

Moreover, this local disconnection between Angelenos and their electoral politics magnifies the power of small, disgruntled groups concerned with narrow issues, and creates a field day for special interests, who only have to swing a few thousand voters to decisively influence an election.

What ought to be done? Here's a radical reform that would make a difference: Abandon nonpartisan municipal elections. Without political parties, the only things around which people can cohere are ethnic identity and personality -- politics' lowest common denominators. Parties energize people and stimulate participation. They bring government down to the block level.

There's no need to stick with traditional Democrat and Republican designations. We could have local parties as well -- greens, labor, vegans for animal rights. It doesn't matter, as long as they function as parties can, connecting voters to the process.

Partisan elections would make a difference, but don't hold your breath.


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