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L.A.'s walking dead

Most Angelenos couldn't summon the energy to cast a ballot. That doesn't have to continue.

March 06, 2013|Steve Lopez
  • Olga Korn, 86, votes in Encino on Tuesday. She was among just 16% of L.A. residents who did.
Olga Korn, 86, votes in Encino on Tuesday. She was among just 16% of L.A. residents… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Mark the date, remember the day.

On March 5, 2013, Los Angeles redefined apathy.

A measly 16% of the city's registered voters — or perhaps around 20% once all the mail-in ballots are counted — turned out in an election with the following things at stake:

How much we pay in sales tax, who controls the nation's second-largest school district, who might fill nine City Council seats and three community college board positions, and who will serve as city attorney, city controller and mayor.

This is late-night TV joke territory, as in:

"Election officials were stunned in Los Angeles on Tuesday when 16% of the city's voters cast ballots. They couldn't believe that many people knew there was an election."

You could spin it, I suppose, and say it's not that we're disengaged, we're just laid back. A whole metropolis of Big Lebowskis, dude.

But being laid back is a lifestyle that takes some thought, as well as the right sneakers. Blowing off an election is just plain lazy. Mail-in ballots are available to one and all. You can vote without ever getting off the couch.

What to do?

One idea would be to time mayoral elections so they're on the same ballot as presidential elections instead of a few months later. It seems to me that a mayor has more impact on our daily lives than a president, but national elections draw a lot more Angelenos to the polls.

Or we could switch to an instant runoff system in which you vote for your first and second choices for mayor. That makes the stakes higher and delivers a winner without the hassle of a separate runoff election.

Or we could do our voting at Starbucks and probably triple the turnout, especially if Starbucks offers a civic duty discount on your caramel macchiatto.

One problem is that polls suggest most people get their news from local television stations, which devote far more time to covering the weather — which is exactly the same 320 days a year — than to local politics and government.

If I were to jump into the mayor's race as, say, a write-in candidate, the first thing I'd do is hijack a car, plaster it with "Believe in Steve" signs, and lead police on a very slow televised chase.

Some slackers try to go high-road on you to explain their civic indifference. They're in the know, see, and they're not going to waste their time voting for ideologically indistinguishable characters like Eric Garcetti or Wendy Greuel, both of whom are neck-deep in City Hall dysfunction and equally unlikely to shake things up.

Some truth in that, sure. But one's a man, the other's a woman. One's a lefty at heart, the other was once a Republican. One's a Silver Lake city boy, the other's a working suburban mom in the San Fernando Valley. One is endorsed by public employee unions, the other by Jane Fonda and Salma Hayek.

And one of these candidates is about to become the mayor of nearly 4 million people in one of the world's most loved and hated cities, a Pacific Rim Ellis Island with staggering riches and overwhelming challenges. One of them will make decisions on traffic, public safety, housing, economic development, and dozens of other issues that will have a direct impact on you, your kids and your grandchildren for years to come.

Speaking of which, I'd like to have a word now with the candidates.

Mr. Garcetti? Ms. Greuel?

If you're out of breath from the primary, I don't know why, because neither of you had much to say. Spare us the prattling in the runoff, please.

Eric, stop telling us that although the recession and the crazy contracts you and Wendy handed to city employees got us into trouble, you jumped into the fire to beat back the flames while others stood on the sidelines.

Wendy, we know you've convinced yourself, if no one else, that you've found $160 million in waste, fraud and abuse as city controller. But you don't seem as eager to explain how the city's fiscal problems were hatched when your were a council member.

Both of you, please quit telling us what you did or didn't do, because we'd rather hear about what you're going to do to ensure we don't die from a heart attack while the Fire Department offers six explanations for slow response times.

Measure A tanked, as both of you said it should. So now's a good time to explain how we pay for city services without the extra $200 million that half-cent sales tax increase would have generated.

You also both said you'd back killing a business tax that brings in more than $400 million a year? Time to show us the math on that trick, too.

Eric, we don't need consensus-building as much as head-cracking. Wendy, I beg you once again to stop telling us everything's on the table. It's time to throw things off the table and tell us where you stand.

And although there's no acceptable excuse for not voting, I want the candidates to know they should be ashamed of all the sensational, distorted, beside-the-point, lowest-common denominator crapola in their campaign fliers and TV ads. Whether those ads were independent expenditures or came from the campaigns, they stank from Pacoima to Pedro.

It's time for some adult conversation about your focus, your plans and your vision. Class things up, and maybe you'll motivate a few slackers to tweet their friends and find out where to vote.

Hey, I'm back where I started.

Stop with the excuses, non-voters. Cynicism is acceptable, surrender is not. Read the paper, for crying out loud. Educate yourself. If we pull together in the runoff, a 25%-30% turnout is possible.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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