Columnists Opinion

Charter amendments on elections don’t measure up

The movie “Selma” and the 50th anniversary of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 remind us that now is the time to engage Americans in elections and remove barriers to voting. What a shame that a pair of charter amendments going before Los Angeles voters March 3 pretend to improve participation in our democracy but actually risk reducing it.

Attention paid to local elections and public accountability of politicians would both lose out under Charter Amendments 1 and 2. If approved by a simple majority of voters, they would move Los Angeles city and school board elections to the bottom of the already-long ballots we see in every even year.

They thrust city elections into the scrum of county, state, and federal electoral battles. Instead of making it easier for residents’ voices to be heard, these measures make it harder for voters to gain knowledge of local candidates and cast informed ballots.

The authors of these two measures on the City Council would extend their own terms by more than one-third, sending a signal that self-interest comes before the public interest. And taking away our separate city elections and ceding this authority to the county could lead to thousands of city voters being asked for an ID for the first time.

This is not the change we have been fighting for. I hope Los Angeles residents join me in voting no on Charter Amendments 1 and 2.

It is important to show, first, that the measures fail to satisfy their foremost sales pitch. The charter amendments promise higher turnout in our city elections by shifting the electoral calendar to even years, but it is extremely unlikely the proposed change will deliver this change.

Let’s look at the data. Since 2000, three of our four mayoral primary elections, all in odd years, like 2013; have drawn turnout that exceeded the primary election turnout in the city in the next even year. To put it another way, voter turnout in the even-year primary has been lower, and older and less diverse.

The demographics of who turns out to vote in primary elections really matters because over that same period, almost 80 percent of all city council and school board elections have been decided in the primary election. Even-year elections are where promoters of the charter amendments hope to place all our voting. Based on a careful look at the math, their promise of higher turnout defies the evidence and cannot be described as a progressive change.

Second, these charter amendments are serious measures that once enacted will be all but impossible to modify or repeal. The proposed changes eliminate our city elections that currently stand on their own.

The 15-member city council, whose president stands to gain an extra 18 months in office under the measures he wrote, voted to place these proposals before voters now.

In contrast, concerned citizens and residents would have to run an extraordinarily difficult and expensive obstacle course to undo these measures, or even adjust them. This is not a pilot project with an evaluation period. This is a hasty and ill-advised action to take away our current elections by changing the constitution of our city. All constitutional amendments should be treated circumspectly. But these measures have moved from proposal to possible enactment in a matter of months. What’s the rush?

The June 2014 report of L.A.’s Municipal Elections Reform Commission makes clear that nearby cities in Southern California that have tacked their local elections onto the end of ballots for June and November of even years have witnessed a woeful amount of drop-off. This loss of voters from the top of the ballot to the bottom, where our important local elections would be stuck, has ranged as high as 30 and 55 percent drop-off in Santa Monica.

Even if we only see drop-off half that bad in Los Angeles, that’s no way to increase engagement in elections, or improve the accountability of policymakers. Once again, the available evidence undercuts the supposed purpose of these charter amendments.

Los Angeles could and should do many things to renew interest and voter involvement in our elections. These charter amendments are not among them.

Instead, these dangerous measures extend terms in office of some members of the city council. (If reform of the electoral calendar was the primary goal, why not make the new terms 18 months shorter instead of longer? That maneuver simply does not pass the smell test.)

They take away our stand-alone L.A. elections and move them to the bottom of an already crowded ballot. They break the bond of responsiveness between communities and elected officials. These measures are no way to mark this important anniversary of voting rights. They do lasting harm to democracy in our wonderful and diverse city. I ask my fellow Angelenos to join me in rejecting them.

Ron Buckmire is a full professor of mathematics at Occidental College; co-founder of the Jordan Rustin Coalition, a civil rights organization based in Los Angeles, and a frequent blogger on politics and public policy.