When it comes to elections, LA is in a state of emergency

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Los Angeles voter Amanda Sutton casts a ballot in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Photo by Avishay Artsy

Like a man who bangs his head against the wall to cure a headache, Los Angeles will hold more municipal elections this March. The certain result: another low-turnout embarrassment that draws the usual lamentations about how our democracy is in peril.

Enough crying. If California’s civic leaders are so sure that Los Angeles elections are democratic disasters, then why don’t they declare an official state of emergency?

In other California contexts, disasters draw interventions and lead to big changes. After an earthquake or fire, officials can declare emergencies and take decisive action without following the usual regulations. When California school districts don’t meet academic standards or go underwater financially, the state can take them over.

If there were a similar established method for reconstituting poorly attended elections, Los Angeles’ would be among the first in line. School board and special elections have seen voter turnout percentages in the single digits. During the 2013 L.A. city elections, the turnout of registered voters barely exceeded 20 percent, even with a competitive mayoral race. Although L.A. County has 3 million more people and 1 million more registered voters than the Bay Area counties put together, more votes are cast in the Bay Area than in L.A. After the miserably low Southland turnout last November, new California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who is from L.A., told the Sacramento Bee:  “You still have those counties where you have 70 percent turnout. And then you have L.A. County. It’s a shame.”

That shame has triggered commissions and recommendations, but very little action. Today only one turnout-boosting proposal has traction—moving municipal and school elections to even-numbered years to coincide with high-turnout gubernatorial and presidential elections. But even if voters approve that change (in March’s low-turnout elections), it won’t take effect until 2020.

As with any disaster, L.A. elections present opportunities for bigger, faster changes. Voter turnout is declining in much of the industrialized world. We need a place to test the many turnout-boosting ideas of scholars and officials.  The very thing that makes L.A. politics so confusing—all the elections in 88 cities, 150 or so school districts, and many special districts—would make it the perfect election lab. Instead of trying just one idea at the time, L.A. could host multiple, simultaneous experiments.

To start, California leaders should tweak state and local laws to make L.A. an election emergency zone. Exempt local election officials (such as the county’s creative registrar Dean Logan) from as many laws as possible for at least a decade. Provide funds to experiment with any strategy that might boost turnout. Appoint a commission of researchers to monitor the resulting experiments.

What would this look like? One idea recently debated by L.A.’s City Council is offering cash prizes to voters in a lottery. Why not take similar L.A. precincts, try different cash-for-votes schemes, and see which, if any, work best? Many experts are convinced that L.A. must ramp up its vote-by-mail efforts, while others argue that the mail doesn’t reach young people. So why not experiment with robust vote-by-mail in parts of Los Angeles—and see who’s right?

The good news is that there is no shortage of ideas to test. Could the signage in polling places be changed to draw people in? Could voting in nontraditional venues—malls, movie theaters, In-N-Out Burger—boost turnout? Would allowing voters to vote at any precinct in the city (not just near their homes) help? What if L.A. decided not to give parking tickets on Election Day (at least around polling stations)?

I’d urge even more dramatic experiments in the L.A. Election Emergency Zone. It would be interesting to see if making local elections partisan affairs might attract more voters in this partisan age (as some political scientists predict).

As a legal and political matter, state leaders would have to authorize this grand experiment; big problems in L.A.—brutal cops, failed jails, terrible Clipper owners—very rarely get fixed by Angelenos themselves. The L.A. Election Emergency Zone would cost California money, but the state would benefit from what is learned. California is near the bottom nationwide in getting eligible citizens to register and vote. It will be hard to improve upon this ranking until Los Angeles elections are no longer disasters.

Joe Mathews is California and Innovation editor at Zocalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.