FROM: Kim Alexander
DATE: February 23, 1999
RE: 7 Local Elections Canceled in L.A. County
By now many of you have probably heard the news that elections in seven cities located in Los Angeles County have been canceled due to a lack of competition. Specifically, Lakewood, Beverly Hills, Hidden Hills, San Gabriel, City of Industry, Monrovia, and Rolling Hills had originally scheduled municipal elections for March 2, but canceled because no candidates stepped forward to challenge city council incumbents. State law allows cities to cancel elections when there is a lack of competition as a way to save money.
The story first appeared in the February 21 edition of the Los Angeles Times in an excellent article by staff writer Doug Shuit (featured below). On February 22, NPR's "All Things Considered" featured a report by Andy Bowers (http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/atc/19990222.atc.12.ram). Both stories cited voter apathy, the high cost of running for office, and a general contentment with the status quo as prime reasons for the canceled elections.
While I think all these factors played a role in canceling the seven municipal elections, I also think there's a lot more going on here, and would like to share with CVF-NEWS subscribers a few thoughts on this matter.
First of all, there is a great deal of general confusion about elections in California. Many voters are asked to go to the polls every year in California, and sometimes more than once a year. That's because many of California's 472 cities hold their municipal elections in "off-years", such as 1999. Given the lack of public information, media coverage, and general voter confusion and burnout, it should be no surprise that turnout in off-year municipal elections is traditionally abysmally low, or that municipal elections fail to draw much competition.
Some cities consolidate their local elections with the state and federal elections held in even-numbered years. This helps increase participation, but the downside of consolidated elections is that municipal elections are often overshadowed by federal and state contests.
This leads to my second point: citizens in California are represented by a variety of elected officials, all with different job descriptions, elected at different times of the year. How can the voter be expected to keep all of this straight? The Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters has a really great feature on their web site (http://www.co.la.ca.us/ROVELEC/) that shows a local voter exactly which districts they live in. For example, I searched my parents' address in Culver City and discovered that my folks live in 15 different electoral
districts, including the L.A. County West Vector Control District, the L.A. County Flood Control District, and the Metropolitan Water District.
Keeping all your electoral districts straight, let alone knowing who's currently representing you in those districts, is nearly impossible for even the most committed citizen. While some cities publish helpful web sites providing a guide to city government, hardly any provide details about when local offices will be up for election or how someone can become a candidate for the office. In fact, three of the seven cities that canceled their elections don't even have a municipal web site (San Gabriel, City of Industry, and Rolling Hills).
The Internet is the best place to begin addressing these problems, and the California Voter Foundation is exploring ways to better inform the voters of California about local elections, as well as provide resources about how to run for public offices in California. In addition, given that there is no master list of municipal elections in California available on the Internet, CVF hopes to compile one soon that at the least can inform voters that there is a local election going on in their area.
Your comments, feedback and suggestions are welcome!
Sunday, February 21, 1999
Los Angeles Times
Lack of Interest Cancels Some Local Elections
By Douglas P. Shuit, Times Staff Writer
With California's municipal election season about to get underway, a number of cities have done the unthinkable: They have canceled their elections because of a lack of interest.
Seven cities in Los Angeles County have decided to forgo the democratic exercise of power this spring, some for the first time in their histories. Beverly Hills, incorporated in 1914, has never before canceled an election, but it did this time. Ditto Lakewood, which had gone 45 years without missing an election. Monrovia hasn't had to cancel an election since the turn of the century. Cities cancel elections when mayors and city council members don't draw opponents. In addition to the three mentioned, elections were also canceled in Hidden Hills, City of Industry, Rolling Hills and San Gabriel. When elections are scratched, incumbents win automatically.
Local candidates have always struggled for visibility in odd-numbered years, when there aren't state or federal elections to draw interest, but never has there been such a dearth of candidates willing to run for office, say those who follow local politics.
Why are this year's off-year elections so off?
Well, for starters, crime is down, the economy is up, the stock market continues to roll along and everyone seems happy--so what's to run against? say political observers.
Many Satisfied With Cities' Direction
Basically, people think things are on the right track, said Santa Monica pollster John Fairbank. A survey he did for sponsors of the $744-million Los Angeles police, fire and paramedic bond measure that will go before voters in April found that 67% of the respondents felt things in their Los Angeles neighborhoods were moving in the "right direction," compared with 22% who thought things were moving in the "wrong direction."
Those numbers represent a complete flip in public opinion when compared with surveys he did in 1993, Fairbank said.
Voter registration also has been trending down for several years, and turnout for elections is often very low, both signs that interest in the political process is waning.
"The turnouts are abysmal, often in the teens or lower," said Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack in a discussion of off-year local elections. Moving city elections into even-numbered years would boost interest because voting would be linked to state and national elections. Most other California counties, including Orange County, now hold their city elections in even-numbered years.
But don't expect that to happen any time soon in Los Angeles County, McCormack said. With 88 cities and outdated vote-counting equipment, the county couldn't handle the load, the registrar said.
The county's 30-year-old voting machines and punch-card balloting get so stressed that just tabulating the results in the races for governor and the Legislature is painfully slow, never mind adding 50 or so cities to the mix.
"We would have a nightmare," McCormack said.
So odd-year municipal elections chug along, with each city responsible for opening and closing the polls and counting the ballots.
That's not to say elections are quiet everywhere. The local election season runs from Burbank's city elections next Tuesday into June.
Cancellations Are Firsts for Some
This year, hotly contested elections are underway in many of Los Angeles County's 44 cities that are having elections March 2. Some cities, such as West Hollywood, Carson and South Gate, are having typical donnybrooks. Following up the March 2 voting will be city elections in Pasadena (March 9), Long Beach (March 30), Glendale and Inglewood (April 6), Los Angeles and Pomona (April 13), Compton (April 20), and Santa Monica (April 24 and 25).
More than a dozen school board elections will be held simultaneously with some city elections.
So there are still plenty of candidates willing to run for often thankless, low-paying jobs on city councils.
Still, elections are being canceled in historic numbers.
Last year, Orange and Ventura counties also experienced an unusually high number of canceled elections and races that failed to draw challengers, so it's not just a Los Angeles County phenomenon.
Heightened interest among political activists to work for single issues, as opposed to more unpredictable candidates, is one explanation cited by some for this year's quiet election season.
A case in point is Beverly Hills, which canceled its City Council election when two incumbents, including the city's mayor, failed to draw opponents. But then the Beverly Hills City Council was forced to approve a special election in May after residents qualified a ballot measure that will ask voters whether furriers should be required to label fur coats in a way that describes the manner of death of the animal killed for its pelt.
Initially, Beverly Hills thought it would save money by canceling the city elections, a common theme among city clerks who view the scrapped elections as a budgetary godsend.
But then came the fur-labeling initiative.
"We saved $60,000 by canceling the council election, now we are having to spend it May 11, which tears my heart out," said Mayor Les Bronte.
Bronte took the lack of challengers in Beverly Hills as a sign that people like the way the city is being run.
Costs of Challenging Incumbents Are High
But supporters of the fur-labeling campaign like to point out that 800 more people signed initiative petitions than voted for Bronte in the last election.
Josh Gross, a Beverly Hills activist, thinks it is prohibitively expensive to run for the City Council, particularly against incumbents who conventional wisdom holds are favorites to get reelected.
"Who's got $40,000 or $50,000 to run against an incumbent, who, by tradition, looks likely for a second term?" he asked.
Still, he said the mayor's active opposition to the ballot measure infuriated many locals and likely would have drawn opposition.
"If the filing period were right now as opposed to two months ago, you'd probably have several candidates running," Gross said.
In Lakewood, more than 1,200 people jammed a hearing last year to complain about flood insurance, indicating that the city has a lot of
people paying attention to politics despite the fact that two incumbent council members failed to draw opposition.
Single-issue initiatives generate interest, said Long Beach campaign manager Jeff Adler, because "the commitment is short and intense and limited."
"When the economy is good, and people are optimistic and employed," incumbents usually are safe "unless there is a very strong issue," said pollster Fairbank.
Reed Rothrock, who makes political signs, bumper stickers and campaign buttons for a living, is singing the blues. Political business is off this year. Way off. Rothrock, whose signs have adorned front lawns from Bakersfield to the Mexican border, said his orders are down by as much as 50%.
Jim Hayes runs a Burbank firm, Political Data, that sells lists and mailing labels to candidates, and also is hired by candidates to research voting histories in various cities.
He has noticed a difference this year, though he does not report the same sharp decline as Rothrock.
One problem Hayes said he faces is that when clients research elections, they want to know the names of people "who voted in the last council elections," because that is often a good measure of their likelihood to vote. With polling booths dark in seven cities, he said, that will cause a problem.
Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved