April Primary Sign of June Gloom? Voter Turnout Stagnant at 11.5 Percent

The City of Long Beach municipal primary filled a handful of the city’s open elected positions last night, but less than a handful of the city’s 168,000 plus registered voters decided to "be vocal and vote local."

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The races that were sent to runoff elections during the June 7 primary will surely see a spike in voter turnout, due to the presidential candidates on the ticket, but the 11.5 percent participation rate displayed during last night’s vote continues the city’s historically low voter turnout.

That 11.5 percent mark could jump up closer to 12 percent, after the 1,300 uncounted vote by mail and provisional ballots are counted. That increase would keep participation rates in line with the last decade of Long Beach April elections, which hasn’t seen a voter turnout rate of over 20 percent since the 2006 mayoral contest.

A host of other cities in Los Angeles County held municipal elections, with several, including Whittier (16 percent), Culver City (16.2 percent), La Puente (13.2 percent) and Avalon (52 percent) outpacing participation rates in Long Beach. 

While it should be noted that these were not citywide elections and were reserved only for those living in areas that had seats up for a vote, the number of voters that opted not to participate is staggering. You could take all 1,721 people that voted in the Sixth District race and put them inside the Walter Pyramid and it would still be half over half empty. The number of people that cast vote by mail ballots—70 percent of ballots counted—could fit inside the Long Beach Arena. Those are small drops in the bucket of a city with nearly 470,000 people. 

Since 2004, when removing special elections and April contests that included a vote for mayor or a special election to replace a elect a single position, the highest voter turnout was recorded in 2004, when 14.4 percent of voters eligible to vote in that primary turned out to cast a ballot. The turnout in 2008 was 12.9 percent and the 2012 voter turnout was 12.6 percent.

“This election can be compared to the 2012 election, which is the last time that these offices were up for election and in that election there was also a 12 percent turnout, so comparatively there was no change in that regard,” said City Clerk Maria Garcia. “But, 12 percent is not a high turnout in general. More people need to be participating, making their voices heard”

The reasons why more people aren’t casting votes could be due to a confluence of factors, including the April election—Long Beach is on a short list of California cities to have one outside of the national June and November voting periods—voter apathy, voter access to information or maintenance of the active voter records.

The city lists over 168,000 “active registered voters”, which is over one-third of the city’s population, but that number could be inflated by non-reporting of deaths, changes of address or other changes to active voters, like being declared mentally incompetent, or if they were incarcerated—all listed reasons on the California Secretary of State’s website for why a person must be deleted from the active registered voter pool.


 

The city has tried addressing at least some of those issues recently in its move to partner with the County of Los Angeles Registrar-Recorder Country Clerk’s office to consolidate the June primary and eliminate the confusion of having to vote in two separate places for state and municipal elections, held on the same day. The annual “Two Vote Tuesday” was done away with the city council’s agreement in February.

The June runoffs, especially when coupled with a state primary, tend to do better than April contests. However, Long Beach mayoral campaigns are held "off-cycle"—the opposite of presidential elections—so those too have suffered from historically low voter turnout.

A study released last month chronicled voter turnout rates in 168 California cities over the past 1,000 combined elections, and found that those contests held on-cycle could experienced voter turnout increases of up to 20 percent in some cases. The study found that Long Beach and a majority of other large cities in the state (more than 100,000 residents) represented a disproportionate amount of these off-cycle elections. Since 1995, the city has averaged 13.8 percent voter turnout for mayoral elections.

The 2014 contest that resulted in Mayor Robert Garcia besting Damon Dunn had a 20.8 participation rate.


 

Last night’s election saw over 19,000 residents cast votes with a large chunk of that (13,384) being by mail. Garcia said that in her over 15 years of presiding over elections, vote by mail has been trending upward, so the 70 percent figure seen last night wasn’t necessarily a surprise. However, she said it does challenge her office to balance the needs of traditional voters and those who choose to cast ballots via mail. She said as more and more young voters register, that calculus might change, and that some millennials might not use the post office and its services as often as their predecessors.

“We have to accommodate both the traditional models of at the polls voting and accommodate voters who want to vote by mail and find it more convenient,” Garcia said. “It definitely makes our jobs as administrators a lot more difficult because then we need to leverage our resources and stretch our budget in today’s environment where there are fewer and fewer resources available, it becomes a challenge.”

Her office budgeted about $1.2 million for the elections this year but that figure could change after all materials are produced and final invoices are received from vendors after the June 7 primary.

Right now, with only 5,944 ballots being cast in person, there is a severe premium being paid to keep polls open for only a trickle of foot traffic that’s utilizing them.

The Be Vocal, Vote Local campaign that the city has turned into a hashtag will get a mulligan in about eight weeks as residents will get the opportunity to cast votes for presidential, congressional and state representatives but also decide races in the Second, Sixth and possibly the Eighth-currently pending a runoff election by a margin of four votes.



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