The Future of Casting a Vote in L.A. Might Include Ranked Choice Voting and Vote-By Mail Elections

In a city of four million people, how many come out to vote? Unless it's a historic election, not many. And sometimes turnout dwindles to a sad single digit number. That's why two Los Angeles City Councilmembers are trying to encourage more participation through four reforms nicknamed the Los Angeles Voters' Bill of Rights. Three of them must be approved by voters, likely during the March 2011 election, but they first must be approved by the City Council for placement on that ballot.

The vision includes a more comprehensive vote-by-mail program, such as ones found in Oregon or Denver, a ranked choice voting system, expanding the budget for clean money campaigns and same day voter registration.

"Los Angeles voters are telling us our election process is in dire need of an overhaul," Councilmembers Jose Huizar and Eric Garcetti wrote in today's Daily News. "Voters are burned out by too many primary, runoff and special elections. And they are increasingly disillusioned as a result of negative campaigns and big-money special interest funding of those campaigns."

While same day registration must be approved at higher levels of government, the other three anticipated for the March ballot were hotly discussed this morning by L.A. City Councilmembers with a handful of politicians expressing concern.

Former LAPD Chief and current Councilmember Bernard Parks was blunt in playing devil's advocate. "Part of the strategy in running for office is to suppress the vote," he said. "Our effort really should be to get people out to vote," he added, likening the proposed measures as "artificial things."

Councilmember Janice Hahn said she took an unofficial "insta poll" at a restaurant the other night and found that everyone was against it. Her concern was that the change would beget confusion and frustration among voters, and urged that if changes do take place, that they are gradually rolled out.

Huizar admitted that anything they do would have room for improvement, but said change would be gradual with vote-by-mail elections by only doing them when fiscally efficient. The first one would probably happen during a special election as the city currently doesn't have resources to pull one off citywide.

Vote-by-mail elections would retain some traditional polling places, but would establish a number of neighborhood vote centers with longer hours to drop off ballots.

A ranked choice voting system aims to avoid costly runoff elections by having voters select their first, second and third choices for candidates. "The system would continue the current practice in which any candidate receiving more than 50 percent of the vote in our nonpartisan elections would win," explained Huizar and Garcetti. "If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the winner would be determined by taking second and, if necessary, third-place rankings into account until a single candidate receives a majority."

The last measure would remove the cap on the maximum allowable amount that can be contained in the Matching Funds Program Trust Fund. With the expanded public financing -- the cap is currently set at $13 million -- more candidates would be able to take advantage of matching funds instead of special interest money.

Councilmembers are scheduled to discuss and vote on the proposed ballot measure on Friday.