Former City Councilmember Mike Donelon knows personally the importance of voting in local elections: His term in office came courtesy of besting his opponent by a single vote in 1994.

His victory required a contested recount and later a protracted legal battle that eventually saw Donelon vacate the office so another election could be held in February 1995 to determine the winner of the city’s 7th District seat.

He won that second election by over 600 votes, but it was the single vote in 1994 that allowed him to be sworn in for a second time during his first term.

“I tell people this all the time, your vote does count,” Donelon said, who now works in the community developing skateparks. “Everyone needs to get out there and have their voice heard and the best way to do that is to vote.”

Right now, though, most people in Long Beach aren’t heeding Donelon’s advice.

With a week to go until Election Day on March 5, only about 5% of the city’s registered voters have turned in their ballots, according to figures collected by Political Data Inc., a voter data firm based in California that goes by its initials, PDI.

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In raw numbers, that means just 13,029 people have cast ballots so far, which is fewer than the 14,423 who’d voted at this point in 2022, according to PDI’s data.

The low turnout is setting up a situation where a tiny fraction of Long Beach’s population could influence the city’s direction for years to come.

Four City Council races and a school board race are on the ballot Tuesday, and all but one of those races will end after the primary because they only have two candidates — meaning they can skip the runoff phase in November.

At least three City Council seats will be decided on Tuesday, with winners potentially needing just a few thousand votes to secure a four-year term.

When broken down into City Council districts, PDI’s data shows that two City Council races have yet to eclipse 1,000 total ballots. The 6th District, where Councilmember Suely Saro is seeking reelection in Central Long Beach, had just 713 ballots returned as of Friday.

The 8th City Council District, where two challengers are vying to replace longtime Councilmember Al Austin in North Long Beach and Bixby Knolls, had just 856 ballots returned.

The one race that could advance to a runoff in November, the 4th City Council District in East Long Beach, had 2,125 ballots returned as of Friday. Four candidates including incumbent Daryl Supernaw are running for the position, and if no one reaches over 50% of the vote the top two vote-getters will advance to November.

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Long Beach is not alone in flagging voter participation. In Los Angeles County, early turnout is down even more sharply. That’s likely due to a lack of exciting or high-profile matchups on the national or statewide stage, according to Paul Mitchell, vice president of PDI.

“In 2018, every voter thought the world was on fire and they had to vote,” Mitchell said, referring to the contentious midterm elections that year. “But this cycle, that factor has been muted because nobody thinks the president is going to be decided in March, and the senatorial races, nobody thinks those are the most important elections of their lifetime.”

The result has been a trend statewide and in Long Beach where older, white voters are dominating the early vote count while other groups seem mostly content to sit this one out.

Seniors and the 18-34-year-old group have about the same share of voter registration (25% statewide), but seniors account for 57% of ballots returned through Friday while younger voters make up just 2% of the vote.

In Long Beach, voters over 65 years old make up 52% of ballots turned in and white voters account for 64%. It’s a staggering number considering seniors make up just 13.6% of the city’s population, according to the most recent Census, and white residents are only 32% of the city’s population.

Conversely, Latinos were 43% of the Census count in 2020, but those voters make up about 16% of ballots returned. Mitchell said if these trends hold through the end of the election, the results could be more reflective of what Long Beach looked like in the 1980s than what it looks like now.

“Those voters are going to have an outsized impact on the election,” Mitchell said. “The drop-off comes from renters, younger voters, and minorities and it makes the outcome of the election not reflective of all residents and registered voters of Long Beach.”

Mitchell thinks Long Beach could ultimately get to about 25% turnout when all the ballots are counted. He noted that Republican voters might be waiting to vote in person on Election Day because they have concerns about voter fraud, but Republican voters make up just 17% of registered voters in the city, and they already account for 23% of ballots cast by mail or collected at drop boxes.

If Mitchell’s prediction is correct, the turnout in Long Beach would be the lowest since the 2018 primary (15.8%), which was the last city election before a state law forced Long Beach to align with the state’s cycle in an effort to boost turnout.

Donelon, the council member who won by a single vote, blames toxicity in Washington, D.C., for turning off voters, something he believes has trickled down to local governments.

“In the world that I roll in, especially with young people, if you watch the news and see how politicians are treating each other, it’s a train wreck,” Donelon said. “Who would want to be a part of something that’s totally divisive?”

For more information about Long Beach races visit the Long Beach Post Elections page.

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.