The Hour of Local Democracy

The Hour of Local Democracy

In boosting local voter turnout, SB 415 is an important step in strengthening our democratic system.

Last March, less than ten percent of Los Angeles City voters cast ballots in municipal elections. Low voter turnout is a statewide problem; for decades state turnout has been steadily declining. The problem of low voter turnout is complex, and is a result of many contributing factors, from voter cynicism and an increasingly mobile society.

What can cities like Los Angeles do to combat this depressing trend? The answer may be as simple as changing the timing of local elections.

Most municipalities hold their elections on the same dates as state and federal elections, which are held in June and November of even years. However, many local governments which report some of the lowest local election turnout figures have something surprising in common: odd year elections. In theory, odd year local elections allow voters to focus on municipal issues without the distraction of state or federal elections. In practice, the combination of low visibility of these elections and voter fatigue from too many elections means odd year elections have staggering low turnouts. According to a survey of 350 California cities published by the Public Policy Institute of California, cities that consolidate their elections with even year state primary or general elections see a voter turnout increase of 21 to 36 percentage points.

Fortunately, this year, Governor Brown has signed important legislation to comprehensively address the problem. Senate Bill 415, by Senator Hueso, requires cities with off-cycle local elections that are consistently low turnout to move their election dates to consolidate with even year state elections. (Low turnout is defined as turnout that is 25 percent lower, on average, than the past four state general elections.) SB 415 is a tailored solution: it does not require all cities to change their election dates; only those with alarmingly low turnout. For cities that want to keep odd-year elections, it provides politicians with a powerful incentive to do everything in their power to reduce the barriers to voting and motivate their constituents to go to the polls.

Low voter turnout is a problem that strikes at the core of our democratic system. When fewer people vote politicians are less accountable to their constituents. As a consequence, elected officials may also have different viewpoints and priorities than the people they serve, which can further disenfranchise individuals and communities from voting. In boosting local voter turnout, SB 415 is an important step in strengthening our democratic system.