Where did all the voters go in the Los Angeles City Council special election?

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

Where are LA’s voters hiding? (photo credit: Matthew Grant Anson)

The hullabaloo around this week’s birth of Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge started me thinking about another British royal of the same name, King George III. Remember him?  His abuse of power and tyrannical rule combined with colonists’ rejection of virtual representation sparked the American Revolution, giving birth to our representative democracy. 

After observing this new form of government, French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville warned of its potential to give rise to a “tyranny of the majority,” threatening its legitimacy. Could it thus be argued that chronic low voter among Californians might result in the tyranny of the minority?

One of every eight Americans lives in California, but too few of us make our voices heard through ballot box. Slightly more than half of the state’s electorate voted in last year’s hotly contested presidential race, giving California the dubious distinction of the second lowest rate of voter turnout in the nation. 

The problem is worse in local elections.

Take yesterday’s special election to fill Los Angeles Sixth District City Council seat. Of the district’s roughly 90,000 registered voters, an initial tally shows that a meager 9,000 cast ballots. That’s a turnout rate of 10 percent. That’s terrible.

As a result, Nury Martinez secured a seat on the Los Angeles City Council by garnering just 5,000 votes. That’s little more than five percent of registered voters.  According to the Declaration of Independence, governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Likely voters and non-voters tend to differ in their political beliefs. So in an election when 90% of the electorate doesn’t even vote, should the public official presume to have the consent of his/her constituents? 

And the real question: why aren’t more people voting? 

Maybe the other 80,000 voters were glued to the television so eagerly awaiting the new prince’s name that they forgot to vote. Ok, probably not. But Common Cause Executive Director Kathay Feng believes that election timing can impact turnout.

Many feel that holding elections on Tuesdays is an American tradition that should be preserved, but for others it may create an unnecessary obstacle to the ballot booth. Tuesday is an “oddball day” to hold an election and voters with inflexible work schedules may find it hard to fit in a trip to the polls on a weekday, explained Feng.  

”Sometimes, people don’t vote because they did not know there was even an election – very likely the case with the Special Election for District 6,” she added.

Improving voter participation is also fundamentally tied to civic education. “We often leave the effort of motivating voters to the campaigns,” Feng said. “That means that we are also leaving the choice to whichever campaign raises enough money.” 

It’s easier to win in low turnout elections because messaging can be targeted to a much smaller and predictable sector of the electorate, creating little incentive for campaigns to undertake a broad voter education effort.

Participation in local elections is generally quite low and they reflect a troubling trend. The future health and legitimacy of our representative democracy depends on the state’s ability to both expand the electorate and significantly increase voter participation. For this reason, the Future of California Elections, of coalition of organizations of which California Forward is a member, is committed to removing barriers to the ballot box and improving civic engagement. 

We believe that a vibrant and responsive democracy is necessary to improve how we make decisions because 90 percent of eligible voters staying home is neither vibrant nor responsive.


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg