Local governments should make voting as convenient as possible. At least at the local level, when more people vote they get greater accountability from their elected officials.
That’s why we urge you to vote for Measure V and Measure Y on June 5. They will increase voter participation by mandating that local election in even-numbered years when larger percentages of the voting public are turning out to choose governors and presidents.
Many more voters go to the polls to elect a governor or president than to elect a council or school board member. For example, 33,106 Burbank residents voted in the November 2004 Presidential Election. That was nearly two-thirds (more precisely, 63.8%) of Burbank’s registered voters (51,893 at the time.) But in the “off-years,” when candidates vie for seats on the City Council or School Board, voter participation plummets to between 15% and 20%. If a particular issue rules the voters the percentage may climb to 25% or 30% as it did in the 1980’s when high rise development and airport noise policies were hotly contested.
Otherwise, local elections tend to be decided by “core voters,” according to Burbank City Clerk Zizette Mullins, “who’ve been in Burbank many years, seniors especially.” But Mullins goes on to say, “Younger families who have just moved here are also wanting to make a difference in Burbank.” That’s understandable. Families have a big stake in their children’s education and in the safety and quality of their neighborhoods.
Even if their numbers are small, why not let the residents who care enough to vote to be the ones to call the shots? If the nonvoters complain about the outcome, they have only themselves to blame. It’s a tempting position to take, especially if we’re frustrated by voter apathy.
Except that local governments are supposed to be serving all their constituents: not just on paper, but in reality. Private companies want to make it as easy as possible for their customers to provide feedback about their products and services, so as not to be blindsided into bankruptcy. Having only 15% to 20% of your customers satisfied doesn’t cut it.
But can’t local governments get away with having a sullen public as long as they don’t bother to vote? Not for long. People and businesses don’t just vote in the booth; they vote with their feet. The golden taxpaying geese can fly away. And sometimes the hoi polloi suddenly mount recalls or field opposition candidates that seem to come out of nowhere. That’s what happens—and has happened–to officials who were only paying attention to a narrow sliver of their constituencies.
Trouble is, voting with your feet can be very life-disrupting. Far better to hold elected officials’ feet to the fire. In Burbank, it’s not all that hard to buttonhole a council or school board member; this isn’t LA. And most local elected officials have many friends and neighbors in the community: they want to look good to their peers the way high school quarterbacks want to look good to their classmates. We’re not talking about distant bureaucrats. These people have skin in the game.
So it’s in everyone’s interest to make it easy for a Burbank resident to vote for local candidates and issues. And the logical way to do it is to make local elections coincide with statewide and national elections. That’s why the State legislature enacted the “California Voter Participation Rights Act” that mandates local elections in even-numbered years if there has been a significant drop in voter participation in odd-numbered years when local elections have been traditionally held.
And that’s why both the City Council and the School Board support these measures as well.
One wrinkle: Burbank is a Charter City with its own election procedures written into the Charter. An argument can be made that therefore the State legislature can’t mandate even-numbered year elections, notwithstanding the contrary legal opinion of the State‘s Attorney General. But our own City Attorney could simply take the position that Burbank’s support of even-numbered year elections is without prejudice to its status as a Charter City.
Another argument for Measures V and Y: A Charter City does give its voters a greater freedom to enact measures without a by-your-leave from the State legislature. Local control is good if the locals are truly in control. In the case of the Charter City of Bell some years back, the local council was passing outrageous fees because on the one hand, the State legislature had no power to prohibit them; and on the other hand, the voter participation was extremely low. So having a Charter City is great when you have an active citizenry. It’s an invitation to corruption when you don’t.
So please vote for Measure V and Measure Y on June 5.