A cramped election calendar affects voting for Los Angeles city offices. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Why do Los Angeles city elections seem simultaneously so anticlimatic -- and so exhausting? There may be many reasons, but no doubt one of them is the calendar.
City elections take place the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March every odd-numbered year, and state and local elections laws that are written around that date ensure that Los Angeles voters face an almost continuous campaign season. Inevitably, every November voting day in an even-numbered year, after we elect a president or a governor, we find ourselves square in the middle of a campaign for mayor or City Council.
Consider last Nov. 7, when voters here awoke after reelecting President Obama, voting in the first full-fledged top-two election for Congress and the Legislature (lots of Democrat-versus-Democrat races and a few Republican-versus-Republican in addition to the old-school D-versus-R contests), electing a Democratic supermajority in Sacramento, adopting two tax increases, rejecting a third, keeping the death penalty, modifying "three strikes," adopting a condom requirement for adult films and voting on a number of other measures, and where were they? Election season. Still. One endless, seamless, soul-sapping election season.
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In fact, that very week, when voters were going to the polls in the national election, was the period for candidates for city office and the school board to file their official declarations for the March 5 election. And the following week was the deadline for the City Council to put measures on the March ballot, which in part accounts for the fact that the half-cent city sales tax measure seemed to come out of nowhere.
Then, with all those candidates and ballot measures lined up, it’s holiday season. So when can the civic discussion about what voters want, need and deserve actually begin? The day after Thanksgiving? Should there be a Black Friday for city campaigning? A door-buster morning for mayoral platforms?
No. Voters desperately need that time off and, besides, in November, candidates are still out gathering their requisite 500 to 1,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot. I haven’t yet heard of any candidate standing at the mall entrance Thanksgiving afternoon for a Gray Thursday petitioning binge; perhaps volunteers are wisely concerned about getting stampeded.
So when did campaigning begin? Between Thanksgiving and Christmas? Seriously, no one can possibly expect voters to think elections during holiday season. But the election calendar continues to run down, so that’s just the season when backers of ballot measures get busy with their plans for the May runoff (officially, the General Municipal Election) ballot. So this year, with the Rose Parade floats still standing in Victory Park and their wilting petals floating on the breeze, before even the first full workweek of 2013, two marijuana initiatives qualified for the May 21 election and two City Council members proposed a street repair bond for the same ballot.
Can we get a break? How about at least until after Presidents Day?
Election fatigue, especially after a presidential race, dulls the small-d democratic spirit and erases any sharp starting line for the city election season.
It wasn’t always this way. Until a 2002 special election, city elections took place in April, giving a month reprieve to everyone and everything. Runoffs were in June, when we expect elections -- because until Arnold Schwarzenegger went crazy with state special elections and legislative Democrats pushed the 2008 presidential primary to February, state primaries were almost always in June, just as surely as general elections were always in November.
So why the switch?
In the April 2001 mayoral election, Antonio Villaraigosa came in first, ahead of Jim Hahn. But with other candidates running, the margin wasn’t large enough to prevent a June runoff, when Hahn pulled ahead and defeated Villaraigosa. The runoff was close but not super-close -- not so close that there was much concern about getting all the votes counted and certified before the mayor was to take office July 1.
Still, some city officials warned that some future election might easily be too close and, besides, didn’t the city clerk need the same 28 days that state and county officials had to count ballots and certify election results? We had to know who the mayor was going to be well before he or she took office. There was a feeling we were just cutting things too close. Many people agreed, including the Los Angeles Times editorial board, which in 2002 endorsed Measure R to move city elections from April to March and from June to May. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.