Enough with the Elections Already


The battle lines are already forming in Los Angeles for the upcoming election.

The June primary? Nope. The November general election? Wrong again.

Then, what election?

How about the municipal elections next March.

And therein lies the quiet, yet compelling crisis of voter burnout, fueled in part by never-ending elections.

More than ever, elections and their accompanying campaigns seek our attention virtually ear-round.

That's because municipalities, school districts, and special districts often hold plebiscites at times other than the traditional June primaries and November general elections set aside for state and federal contests.

Not content with either of those dates, Los Angeles has its primary for mayor, the other citywide offices, and half the city council next March 5, followed by the general election on May 21st. 

It's even more absurd in San Francisco, where the city attorney and treasurer will be elected in November 2013, while the mayor, district attorney. and sheriff will be elected in November 2015. Meanwhile, half of the Board of Supervisors will be selected this coming November, with the other half in November 2014.

School districts are particularly adept at organizing elections at times when absolutely nothing else is on the ballot. More waste of government funds and people's time.

Not all local elections are organized as "stand alone" events. Sacramento, San Jose and San Diego all fold their contests into the traditional June/November even-year format used for state and federal offices.

Still there are enough elections outside the traditional framework to keep campaign consultants working every day while the voters spin in confusion over which issues and candidacies deserve their attention.

Defenders of "stand alone" elections claim that they allow the voters to focus only on their contests while isolating the event from state and federal issues that could influence the minds of the voters.

Maybe so, but that isolation comes at a great cost.

To begin with, turnout for stand alone elections tends to be much lower than when races are bunched together.

That's because there is not as much reason for voters to participate; there isn't as much at stake.

In addition, the local governments must pick up the tab when their elections are held at times other than the state and federal dates.  Whether it's a few hundred thousand dollars in a small town or school district or tens of millions in a large city, that's money that the governing unit could better use elsewhere.

But most of all, there is the question of voter fatigue. With one election blending into the next, there is little time for the voter to think about anything else but elections. That kind of environment can turn off anyone to the thought of political participation.

In an era of information overload, the last thing we need is to feel besieged by never-ending campaigns.

Instead, we should make it easier on the voters by bundling campaigns together at regularly scheduled intervals.

 It may not improve the quality of candidates or solve major budget issues, but at least we'll have some peaceful moments to reflect on what we want.

Larry Gerston is professor of political science at San Jose State University and serves as political analyst at NBC Bay Area.

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