On Thursday, January the 8, Pacifica Institute Los Angeles hosted it first lecture of the year featuring the esteemed Professor Fernando J. Guerra.
Professor Fernando Guerra in the Director of the Thomas and Dorthy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles, a professor of Political Science, and a professor of Chicana/ Chicano Studies at Loyola Marymount University. He also serves as the assistant to the President for Civic Engagement. His research focuses on state, local, urban, and ethical politics and he has been the principle investigator in over 20 research studies conducted by the center of the study of Los Angeles.
During his visit to Pacifica Professor Guerra enthralled us with his thought-provoking lecture on “The Political Landscape of Los Angeles.” His lecture for the evening revolved around a survey he conducted with the purpose of studying and recording three main concepts: 1.Voter turnout rates 2. Their causation, and 3.What can be done to increase voter turnout rates. He began by sharing the shockingly historically low voter turn out rate of our November 2014 elections. In a graph produced by Professor Guerra’s research it showed how voter turn out rate in Los Angeles has gone drastically down from 70.5% voter turnout rate in 2012 to an alarming 31.05% in 2014. Findings have shown that gubernatorial elections are dramatically declining in voter turn out rates and that primary elections are declining at an even faster rate. Currently Presidential elections hold the highest number of voters but the gap between voters who vote during presidential elections and gubernatorial elections is greatly increasing.
Statistically speaking, Professor Guerra shared, there are roughly 4 million inhabitants living in Los Angeles, 1.8 million of those 4 million are registered to vote, while 1.2 are not registered. Those not registered accounting for children, persons under 18 years of age, undocumented persons, foreign born, and non-citizens. More than 250,000 Angelinos over the age of 18 that are eligible to vote are not registered. This is a trend that can be seen happening across the country, but why?
One of the reasons for this phenomenon, Professor Guerra announced is in part due to our staggered voting system. The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are not all voted in at once. Instead we have separate elections to vote part of the representatives into office and then hold a different election to vote in the remaining members. The Los Angeles city council does this as well; first 8 council members are voted in while the remaining 7 are elected at a later time. Dr. Guerra proposed that if the staggered turns were to be reduced then turn out rates would slightly increase. Currently Los Angeles is the 2nd largest city in America with a budget of over 15 billion, yet L.A. Mayor, Eric Garcetti, was voted into office with only 23%. This drastic low turnout is allowing candidates to win and run with only 13%. The March 2nd elections showed only 12% of voters turning out for city council elections. This is a clear challenge for democracy.
Another reason to explain this baffling phenomenon is the lack of competition. The Republican Party has become very weak in California. Roughly 16% of Angelinos are Republicans. By law local elections prohibit candidates to declare themselves as either Democrats or Republicans, local elections are to be nonpartisan. This lack of competition is also felt by the lack of wedge issues in Los Angeles. While on a national level there is an on going debate between Democrats and Republicans on issues such as gun control, reproductive rights, and global warming, there is an overwhelmingly strong consensus in Los Angeles. A clear example of was the last mayor election in which two democrats ran against each other. The absence of racial exclusion has also hindered voter turn out rates in Los Angeles. We have seen Latinos, Jews, African Americans, and Asians hold office. In the past pockets of exclusion would be a driving force that evoked people to get out and vote. Off year elections and nonpartisan ballots also have a negative impact on voter turnout rates. Off year elections come at times when voters aren’t expecting elections while voters who vote along party lines can’t identify with their candidates with nonpartisan ballots. These elections also lead into voter fatigue in which citizens feel overwhelmed by multiple elections held with such short time apart.
After the embarrassingly low voter turnout rate produced by the mayoral elections in 2013, said Professor Guerra, both the Mayor of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles City Council President asked him to investigate the causation of such low voter turnout rates. Professor Guerra and his research team came up with 33 recommendations after conducting extensive research. He said, “32 out of the 33 would barely move the needle.” Even with his recommendations making a big difference would still prove a challenge.
So what where Professor Guerra’s recommendations? Moving city elections to November, the same month voters are use to voting for the President, would be a good place to start. Instead of having off year elections during months the general public is not use to voting could ease voter fatigue and confusion. In fact, this amendment has been approved 14/1 by the Los Angeles City Council and will be on the ballot of the upcoming election. Getting rid of both staggered year elections and primary elections were other recommendation proposed by Professor Guerra. Instead of having multiple elections have one in which all members are elected at once and allowing the top voter to win by a plurality vote instead of going into runoff elections. While some individuals might be frightened by the thought of this, we should remember, said Professor Guerra that many presidents have won by plurality, including Senator Barbara Boxer in 1992. Electronic voting could also have a revolutionary impact on voting. Developing touch screens could facilitate the voting process. Internet complimented voting was another recommendation mentioned by the Professor. Allowing the possibility for voters to simply type in their address, regardless of location, and being directed to the candidates they are eligible to vote for would be a great asset. Of course the voter would still have to print the form out and mail it in with a signature, as paper trails are essential to verify voters. Same day registration could also help increase the number of votes.
Professor Guerra concluded his lecture by sharing what he said was his most radical idea. Dr. Guerra proposed the idea of conducting a lottery post elections as a form of incentive. This process would call for randomly selected voters to be placed into a lottery and those chosen would be compensated with monetary prices. This idea he shared is one that hasn’t been the most popular but would be an interesting experiment to conduct.
Pacifica Institute would like to greatly thank Professor Fernando J. Guerra for his wonderfully thought provoking lecture on the political landscape of Los Angeles.