Los Angeles went and had a little municipal election last week. That was followed closely, as it is every year, by an annual tradition: the wringing of the hands over our low voter turnout.
“Tuesday’s L.A. voter turnout was likely the lowest ever, muddying Garcetti's historic re-election win,” groused the Los Angeles Times. “Just how low was voter turnout in L.A. County’s 2017 elections?” asked the Daily News, blowing the suspense by answering that question in the lede: “Turnout was expected to be low for Tuesday’s Los Angeles County elections. And it was.” And the Atlantic's City Lab announced forbiddingly: “11 Percent of Voters Decided the Future of Los Angeles.”
That 11 percent number (which refers to the percentage of registered voters who cast ballots) made its way around social media and even showed up in a couple of L.A. Times opinion pieces (including an especially ludicrous one from Republican political strategist Mike Madrid, which argued that the “abysmal,” 11 percent turnout spelled trouble for Democrats nationwide).
Never mind the fact that voter turnout in L.A. was very much not 11 percent. That was a preliminary figure, cited by the Times at 7:30 p.m. on Election Night – half an hour before the polls closed. Any reporter who's been covering politics in Los Angeles for more than a couple years ought to know that there are a ton of late-arriving vote-by-mail ballots as well as provisional ballots, all of which aren't counted until weeks after the election.
This year, there were more than 250,000 such ballots – enough to push voter turnout well above 16 percent, which is where things stand on Wednesday morning, with about 55,000 ballots still to be counted.
That number refers to the County of Los Angeles, parts of which had only a single item on the ballot – Measure H. The city of L.A.s turnout will be higher. Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., estimates that in the end, voter turnout in the city of Los Angeles will be around 18.5 percent. Lowest ever? Hardly.
(Update, March 20, 6:15 p.m.: The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk’s office has finished tallying the votes, and the final voter turnout, for the county, is 17 percent. Voter turnout in the city, which had more competitive races than most places in the county, was 20 percent – significantly higher than eight years ago, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was running for reelection. One out of five registered Angelenos voted.)
The above chart, put together by Mitchell for the delight of his Twitter followers, shows voter turnout in L.A. municipal elections since 2003. It excludes even-year statewide and national elections, which have much higher turnout. As you can see, projected turnout for the 2017 primary election – 18.5 percent – dwarfs the 11 percent turnout of 2015, when there was no mayor's race. It fell a bit short of the 21 percent turnout in 2013 – but that was a highly competitive mayor's race to fill an open seat.
The most recent citywide election where, like this year, a mayor was running for a second term was in 2009, when Antonio Villaraigosa was up for re-election. That year, turnout was … 18 percent. Exactly what it was this year.
“If people were looking for signs that you’re going to have this crazy engaged electorate in every election now that people are protesting in the airports and watching Sean Spicer press conferences, if you were to think that that would lead to more people voting, you’d be wrong,” Mitchell says. “This turnout seems to be pretty consistent with prior past elections.”
While 18 percent (or so) is a hell of a lot better than 11 percent, it's still not terrific. But it's not all that inconsistent with other citywide local elections, all of which are seeing fewer and fewer voters. Turnout in New York City's 2013 mayoral election was somewhere around 24 percent – and that was a competitive race for an open seat. And according to Governing magazine, average voter turnout in 2011 was just shy of 21 percent.
Los Angeles soon may find itself nostalgic for the days of low-turnout citywide elections. After the May general election, the city has just one more odd-year local election to look forward to, in 2019. Thereafter, the city will hold its local elections concurrently with national and statewide elections in even-numbered years.
That should boost turnout. It also will lead to even longer and thicker ballots, with more items for voters to bone up on and an even heavier volume of glossy advertisements flooding their mailboxes. Ballot measures, City Council races and school board elections may be lost in the noise of the presidential election, which may well feature an exciting outsider candidate with a penchant for insulting people on Twitter.
On the plus side, it will save money — and save us from the predictable crocodile tears shed over L.A.'s lack of civic engagement.