In the first two decades of the 20th century, one thing about Los Angeles city elections remained consistent: turnout was anemic. Whether the ballot included a mayoral contest or was just comprised of city council and school board races, frequently fewer than one in three eligible voters hit the polls. Sometimes participation was markedly lower, such as the 18 percent turnout recorded when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was re-elected in 2009.
After each distressing exercise in democracy, a chorus of Angelenos would groan and proclaim the need to rectify the situation. People outside L.A., meanwhile, seemed to take a sort of nasty glee in the turnout figures. After the March 2013 mayoral primary drew 21 percent of eligible voters to the polls, a New York Times story asked, “Is there no such thing as civic engagement in this sprawling metropolis?”
One solution was clear, even if it took time to implement. In 2014, a panel known as the 2020 Commission—helmed by now-LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner and former U.S. Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor—issued a report that recommended shifting city elections from odd-numbered years to even-numbered years and aligning them with state and federal ballots. Others advocated for the same thing, and voters in 2015 overwhelmingly approved a city charter amendment authorizing the change.
The shift went into effect for the first time this year, and the increase in participation was immediate and dramatic. Consider the difference in turnout in City Council races from March 2015 and March 2020 (all had multiple candidates unless noted):
Council District 2
2015: 11,020 votes cast
Council District 4
Council District 6
Council District 8
2020: 32,415 (Marqueece Harris-Dawson ran unopposed)
Council District 10
Council District 12
2015: 13,836 (Mitch Englander ran unopposed)
Council District 14
Total of all seven district races:
In every case turnout at least doubled, while in District 2 it quadrupled. It nearly quintupled in District 12, with at additional 51,000 people hitting the polls. District 4 also saw participation climb by more than 50,000, and two candidates in that contest, incumbent David Ryu and challenger Nithya Raman, both earned more votes individually than were cast in the entire district five years before (the two will meet again in a November runoff). Kathay Feng, national redistricting director of Common Cause, which seeks to improve democracy in part by getting more people involved in the process, pointed out that District 6, which recorded the smallest turnout this year with approximately 29,000 votes, still saw about 5,000 more participants than the district with the highest voting level five years ago (District 4).
Common Cause’s California branch advocated strongly for the 2015 charter amendment. Feng called the heightened level of participation in March a “resounding confirmation” of the change in election dates. She anticipated that voter rolls would climb, but was still surprised by the turnout.
“We knew in looking at some other cities that had moved to even-year elections in Southern California that the increases would be fairly dramatic,” she said. “I think all of us were appropriately blown away by the increase.”
In certain races, such as the District 4 contest, the spike appears to have been accelerated by grassroots groups such as Ground Game L.A. The organization endorsed Raman and sought to drive more voters to the polls.
Shifting election dates, said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State University Los Angeles, has altered a scenario in which white, middle-class homeowners long dominated the electorate. Overall, he added, the March election resulted in a wider swath of people participating
“You’ve got most likely more renters voting than in the past, proportionate to homeowners,” he said.
The spike in turnout presents new challenges for council candidates. Eric Hacopian, a political consultant who has worked on Los Angeles elections for decades, said the majority of money spent in a local race goes to the mailers sent to the homes of voters (Hacopian was involved in Ryu’s mail effort in the primary, but is not working with the campaign in the runoff). He said the cost of such expenditures is shaking up the dynamics of council races.
“The amount of money that it takes to mail to 26,000 voters—that would be like 18,000 households—is a hell of a lot different than having to go to 60,000 households,” Hacopian said. “So council races have become dramatically more expensive.”
When city elections took place in odd-numbered years, they were frequently the only items on the ballot, and thus garnered the lion’s share of attention of the media and civic-minded Angelenos. Generally, they drew only the most active voters.
In those contests, Hacopian said, candidates would seek to court key community leaders, neighborhood council heads and homeowners associations, knowing their endorsements could trickle down into a sizable percentage of the voter pool. He said now there is an air of uncertainty.
“This electorate does not look like anything normal council candidates are used to,” Hacopian said. “You’re dealing with a much bigger world of voters who you have absolutely no experience with.”
After the voter surge in March, some observers believe even more people will be drawn to the polls in November, lured by the Trump-Biden battle. That also raises the possibility of local races being overshadowed by a contest that sucks all the air out of every room.
There is another cautionary point—the presidential and council contests may represent the national and local poles on the ballot, but in between are a bevy of other important races. That means mailboxes and TV screens in the coming weeks will be cluttered with messages and ads from a variety of candidates, as well as pro and con arguments for propositions and measures related to taxes, ride-share drivers and more.
“I think the attention hole in politics is so swamped in information,” said Sonenshein. “I’m wondering now if money can buy as much as it used to buy. There are 12 state measures. There’s a presidential race, Congressional races.”
Feng recognizes the concern, but points out that in Los Angeles, local races appear at the top of the ballot, even before the presidential contest. This happened in March, she noted, and the contested City Council races saw ample participation. She expects that will be the case again.
There’s another positive to the voter boost, Feng said, though it would be manifested long after election day.
“It’s a good thing when a lot more people participate,” Feng observed. “It means that whoever is elected reflects a much broader swath of that district’s constituency. And it means that moving forward, their polices will hopefully be much more representative of the district at large.”
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