Could This Simple Idea Fix L.A.'s Voter Turnout FAIL?

Do it all at home.
Do it all at home.

Congratulations, Los Angeles! You had the lowest voter turnout of any county in California during the November 2014 elections. Just over 1.5 million of you cast ballots – 15 percent of residents, or 31 percent of all registered voters. Compare that to our flower-wearing brethren in San Francisco, where 53 percent of registered voters cast ballots, or San Diego, or Alameda, or Orange County, all three of which notched 45 percent turnouts.

"This election was definitely something that was troubling," says Efrain Escobedo, manager of governmental affairs for the L.A. County Registrar of Voters. "It’s not democracy if people don’t vote." 

It's ... embarrassing.

So much so that various solutions are being bandied about, like automatically entering voters into a lottery with cash prizes up to $50,000. Los Angeles city leaders suggest shifting municipal elections from odd-numbered to even-numbered years, in line with national elections, to drag people to the polls.

This would have the side benefit (for elected city leaders, at least) of giving those currently holding office a whole extra year in their seats.

But hold on. There may be a simpler, easier answer. 

Californians voted by absentee ballot in huge numbers this year. In San Francisco, 70 percent of all votes were sent in by mail. San Diego? 73 percent. Alameda? 70 percent. Orange County? 71 percent. 

Los Angeles? Just 49 percent. Even our absentee voters were absentee. L.A. is the only county in which fewer than 60 percent of voters used the mail.

Yet when it's made easier to vote by using the mail, people often will vote.

In order to get a mail-in ballot, you must be registered as a "permanent absentee voter." After that, your ballot comes in the mail, and you can mail it back or drop it at any polling place in the entirety of L.A. County. The catch (and it's not really a catch at all) is that you're no longer listed on the log at your polling place. But if you show up and insist on voting in person, you can still vote "provisionally" and your vote still counts.

So what's the problem?

Los Angeles County voters have been avoiding switching over to mail-in: Only 30 percent have registered as "permanent absentee" voters, far behind San Francisco, San Diego, Alameda, and Orange counties. 

"The fact that Los Angeles has such a low permanent absentee voter rate definitely contributes to the lack of turnout in L.A.," says Sacramento-based voting data consultant Paul Mitchell.

But why is L.A. so far behind the avid vote-by-mailers?

Mitchell says we fell behind in the early 2000s, when L.A. County Registrar Conny McCormack wanted to dissuade people from voting by mail because the county government had just spent millions of dollars on brand-new voting machines that she didn't want to go to waste. 

Honestly. According to Mitchell.

"It created this permanent gap between [other counties] and L.A. County," says Mitchell. 

Some county election officials also might not like absentee voting because it can delay the outcome of close races or close ballot measures, while the ballots that got mailed on Election Day itself are finally received and counted.

Escobedo, of the registrar's office, sounds unconvinced of Mitchell's theory. 

"Vote-by-mail voting is certainly becoming a preferred method of voting," Escobedo says. "Whether it’s a method that’s helping to expand the voters who participate in elections is not as clear."

Escobedo and Mitchell agree that L.A. needs to explore strategies to get voters interested again. And yes, that may mean changing city elections to even-numbered years. Mitchell says that fix would "definitely increase turnout."

But before we try anything drastic, maybe L.A. officials, whose years ago actually discouraged L.A. voters from making the switch, should now prod them to catch up with other parts of California and become absentee voters. 

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