‘Empower LA’ research tour • DAY TWO: Community Elections in South Los Angeles

Empower tour

I’m in Los Angeles, spending an entire week with the Department of Neighbourhood Empowerment.  I’ll be posting updates each day!

Los Angeles has 95 elected Neighbourhood Councils comprised entirely of volunteers.  Every two years they have city-wide local elections for all 95 Councils and those elections are happening right now.

I spent the second day of my research trip visiting five election polls in South LA, and interviewing candidates, voters, volunteers and community leaders.

I met a lot of inspiring people, and they all spoke highly of the Neighbourhood Council system.  Some offered constructive criticism and pointed out that there was room for improvement, but even those critics felt that the city benefits overall from having these councils.

I shot 70 minutes of one-on-one interviews, and I’ll try to post an edited piece later this week.  In the meantime, here are some photos and some quick reflections on what I saw & heard:

South LA Colage

The Candidates

The candidates I spoke with were diverse in all aspects.  Some were quite young, others were quite senior.  Some were new to Neighbourhood Councils, others have been involved since the program was created about ten years ago.  What they all shared was a passion for their community and a belief that their Neighbourhood Council was a constructive vehicle for community empowerment and positive change.


Sevak Paramazian, Digital Strategist at Empower LA

The Voters

This part is interesting: Each Neighbourhood Council sets their own election rules, including who is allowed to vote.  In many Councils elections, they’ve loosened the typical rules of an election by expanding the vote to include “stakeholders”.  In other words, you don’t need to actually live in that neighbourhood to vote.  You can work in the area, go to a nearby church, go to a local school, etc.  This could theoretically open the door to abuse, but I really like the idea of defining a neighbourhood not by who sleeps their each night, but who lives there each day.

The winners

Elections from last month seem to have delivered a good mix of incumbents as well as new faces.  I think that’s a good metric of a healthy democracy.

IMG_0796The ballots

I was disappointed to learn that most of the Neighbourhood Councils are using First Past the Post (single member plurality, like Toronto) or at-large block voting (like Vancouver).  Simply put,  these are the worst voting systems out there, because they deliver non-proportional results and encourage vote-splitting, and negative campaigning.   It might not make a big difference either way for these small Councils, but switching to better voting systems would be great for the larger democracy movement in California and the US (ie: leading by example, at the local leve to influence change in municipal, state and national electionsl). I’m hoping to create some connections between community leaders in the LA Deptartment of Neighbourhood Empowerment and the folks at FairVote USA!

First Contact

One of the largest obstacles of this entire project is outreach.  How do you promote a system of Neighbourhood Councils to millions of residents, with a small budget?  I figured the best way to find out what forms of outreach are most successful, is to ask existing volunteers how they first heard about the Neighbourhood Councils!   The overwhelming response to this question was simply: “At my door”.  Most people said that they heard about their Neighbourhood Council through a flyer or booklet delivered directly to their home, or someone knocking on their door.  Sadly, the annual budget for each Council has been drastically cut in recent years, making it very difficult to carry out effective outreach.  One elected member pointed out that “Word of mouth is very alive in our Community”, in contrast to the popular opinion these days that outreach can be done simply through social media.

Elizabeth Martinez, Elected Youth Rep on the Central Alameda Neighbourhood Council

Elizabeth Martinez, Elected Youth Rep on the Central Alameda Neighbourhood Council

Youth Participation

One of the unique elements of these Councils is the emphasis on youth empowerment and involvement.  Many Councils have a youth representative on their board with full voting rights.  Also, many Councils have decided to lower the voting age to encourage participation.  In fact, one Council set their voting age to 12 years old!

Overall, I was pretty inspired by everything I saw.  More to come!

Next post:  Neighbourhood Council meetings!


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