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Why LA Has Stopped Voting!

PLANNING WATCH-In the 1960s, 75 percent of Angelenos voted in local elections. In the Villaraigosa-Garcetti era less than 20 percent of the electorate bothers to vote

. In Los Angeles, a city of 4,000,000 people, a candidate can become mayor with 331,000 votes. In City Council Districts, that have on average 260,000 people, 7,000 to 31,000 votes are enough to win a Council election  

These voting trends track the United States as a whole, where the 100 million non-voters are the largest political category, eclipsing those who identify as independents (38 %), Democrats (31%), Republicans (26 %), or Greens and other small parties (5 %).  

But why are there so many non-voters and independents in the United States, especially when the media endlessly promotes the country’s two major political parties, the Republicans and Democrats?  Political scientists have tried to answer this question and identified four major causes for non-voting. 

1) Barriers to registration. If you are a non-citizen or a jailed or released felon, you cannot legally vote in most states. Two states, Vermont and Maine, allow prisoners to vote, and only 11 states automatically restore voting rights when a jail sentence ends. Furthermore, in every state newcomers must re-register to vote, a hassle that many people avoid. In combination, 50 million people -- half of non-voters and one quarter of the potential electorate -- either could not or have not registered to vote. 

2) Education. Voting is directly related to educational level, which means the more years of school you have, the greater your chance to vote.  

3) Structure of the U.S. political system. Parliamentary democracies have many political parties, each corresponding to a different political constituency. In contrast, the United States has a political duopoly of the Democratic and Republican parties. They totally dominate the political spectrum.  Furthermore, because the U.S. has winner-take-all elections, small parties rarely can win an election.  In a parliamentary democracy, 10 percent of the popular vote results in 10 percent of the elected representatives. In the United States you get zero, and because of the Electoral College, even the winner of the Presidential popular vote, such as Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, can still lose an election.  As a result, many of those whose political views don’t fit into mainstream Republican and Democrat positions become non-voters. 

4) Apathy and burnout, what some political scientists call disengagement. The typical reasons for disengagement include the hassle of voting, lack of interest in politics, inadequate information, frequent elections, anger at the government, and declining confidence in elected officials. For example, in 2018 only 17 percent of the U.S. population had favorable views of their government. This compares to three-quarter of the U.S. population who widely trusted public institutions in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

Trust in the US political system declined from about 75 percent to 17 percent over past the 60 years, from the Eisenhower-Kennedy to the Obama-Trump eras 

Apathy and burnout are also linked to the structure of the U.S. political system. It leaves many potential voters with a dismal choice, voting for a lesser-evil candidate. 

For example, if you want government to spend less money on the military or police, you rarely have an electoral alternative. If you want Medicare-for-All, public option health insurance, or a nationwide health care system similar to the Veterans Administration, you do not have a major party candidate choice. If you want the minimum wage to keep up with inflation and the cost of housing ($24/hour), you have no one to vote for. If you want the Federal government to resume building public housing, you have no one to vote for. If you are part of the 34 percent of younger voters who prefer socialism to capitalism, you do not have a candidate in the presidential election.  

In local political, the situation is similar.  If you want to stop the mansionization and gentrification of Los Angeles neighborhoods, CityWatch readers know you don’t have a horse in local races.  If you want to stop multi-million-dollar lawsuits against the LAPD for repeated violations of Angelenos’ civil liberties, who would you vote for? If you want Los Angeles to fund an urban forest comparable to surrounding cities, there is no one to vote for. If you want elected officials to approve the most environmentally friendly EIR alternative to large private and public projects, you cannot depend on electoral politics. 

Most importantly, if you want local candidates who do not rely on talking points carefully honed through focus groups and campaign consultants, you have slim pickings in local elections. Yes, you can find aspiring politicians who have cultivated an empathetic persona and who have adorned their speeches and platforms with appealing buzzwords, like equity and affordable housing. But the devil is always in the details. Luckily for such candidates, few voters have the time to analyze their proposals, which is why CityWatch plays such an important role.  

For example, in the current election for LA’s City Council District Four, I participated in a Zoom call with the challenger, who has been endorsed by progressive organizations, such as the Democratic Socialists of American (DSA). The candidate invited callers to carefully review an extensive, on-line platform. I took up this offer and discovered the housing section was riddled with market fundamentalist proposals, beautifully giftwrapped in “progressive” slogans. 

But the platform’s approach to the housing crisis was not to reduce growing poverty and inequality, a major cause of overcrowding, out-migration, and homelessness. I did not find proposals to increase the minimum wage, restore gutted HUD and CRA public housing programs, reform tax laws, and institute municipal verification inspections of pledged affordable housing. Likewise, I did not find a call to strengthen LA’s weak Rent Stabilization ordinance, so it would finally apply to all housing, not just apartments built before 1978. Likewise, I could not find a proposal to eliminate vacancy decontrol, allowing new tenants to maintain the reduced rents of previous tenants. 

Instead, the challenger proposed cutbacks in zoning laws that would make it easier for private investors to build market housing.  This theory, which CityWatch articles have frequently debunked, claims that the right combination of zoning and environmental deregulation can square the circle.  

This elusive magic formula will reduce housing costs through expanded private investment.  Never mentioned, of course, is that up-zoning increase property values.  Developers then either flip parcels or build expensive housing because it is the most profitable.  This new, pricey housing pulls up the price of older housing, which makes the housing crisis worse.                                                          

More specifically, the platform I was invited to review calls for: 

  • Removing density limits on new housing. The form of up-zoning is supposed to reduce the cost of housing, but as I demonstrated in a recent CityWatch column, it will only produce over-priced housing. 
  • Allowing smaller units, often called micro-units. According to the Central City Association, a DTLA business advocacy group, a 350-square-foot micro-unit would cost $1500 per month. So much for affordable housing. 
  • Eliminating parking requirements. Developers will love this change until they can’t find tenants to rent vacant Los Angeles apartments without parking. 
  • Limiting amenities. This is real estate lingo for eliminating legally required open space, including front, side, and rear yards. 

The unanswered question about these supply-side proposals is whether they would nevertheless make LA’s neighborhoods more racially and economically diverse. The answer is no. Up-zoning undercuts racial and economic diversity because it results in expensive housing. It, therefore, reinforces racial income and wealth inequality. In addition, up-zoning increases the number of un-planned buildings and residents in a neighborhood, which leads to failing public infrastructure and services. Many of LA’s neighborhoods were built nearly a century ago, designed for a smaller, less energy-intensive population. This is why LA’s General Plan requires up-zoning ordinances to furnish evidence that infrastructure and public services can meet increased user demand. 

To cram more people and buildings into older Los Angeles neighborhoods would benefit the short-term business plans of developers, but it is a doomsday scenario for a city with old infrastructure bracing itself for catastrophic climate change and certain earthquakes.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch.  He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and is co-chair of the new Greater Fairfax Residents Association. Previous Planning Watch columns available at https://plan-itlosangeles.blogspot.com/. Please send comments and corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.