The original version of this article was published on April 21st, 2022 for our new Making a Neighborhood Newsletter. Please consider becoming a paid subscriber today to get more stories like it, plus more work from our colleagues Samanta Helou Hernandez and Ali Rachel Pearl.
In a report on low voter turnouts in L.A. County when compared to our neighbors up north—which has consistently resulted in more success for political candidates from the latter—reporter Laurel Rosenhall noted that “Southern California is home to a greater share of Latinos than the Bay Area, and has many more people living in poverty—both characteristics correlated with low voting.”
These historic characteristics notwithstanding, things looked better for L.A.’s voter turnout in the general election of November 2018, when 58% of the county’s registered voters sealed Newson’s victory over Trump’s John Cox. The spike proved fleeting, however, as voter turnout dipped again for a primary less than two years later.
In March 2020—a day before California declared a state of emergency in response to the novel coronavirus—Bernie Sanders beat out Joe Biden for the democratic nomination in Los Angeles, but with only 39% of L.A.’s registered voters participating. It thus wouldn’t be until the general election of 2020 that precautionary measures for the coronavirus gave way to a simple yet powerful transformation in L.A.’s and CA’s voting systems: mail-in ballots to registered voters everywhere.
During November 2020, on the one hand was the prospect of four more years of MAGA hats; on the other, the largest marches in U.S. history over George Floyd’s documented murder. In response, more than 76% of registered voters in L.A. County submitted a ballot; of the 4.3 million of these collected, 3 out of 4 were sent by mail. It was the political equivalent of snow in L.A. County.
Before this, only the 1992 general elections—which took place less than seven months after the L.A. riots—held the record for the highest voter turnout in several decades when 61% of voters came out. L.A.’s strongest turnout for a local election took place in 1969, when 76% of the city’s registered voters came out for a match between Sam Yorty and City Councilman Thomas Bradley, a major drive for which was Yorty’s brutal response to the 1965 Watts rebellion.
Taken together, then, the 1969, 1992, and 2020 turnout rates suggest that L.A.’s voters show up in larger numbers when issues of race are clearly on the line. But there’s a caveat to keep in mind: with the exception of the 1969 election, which was a runoff, the higher turnout rates occurred during general and not primary contests, which we will return to shortly.
An additional outlier during 2020’s general elections was the success of Nythia Raman, who defeated incumbent David Ryu to represent East Hollywood and CD-13’s more resourced neighbors, including those in Los Feliz, Sherman Oaks, and the Miracle Mile, among other neighborhoods in “East Central” L.A. (That is, before L.A.’s redistricting commission remade Raman’s district in 2021 to represent more of the San Fernando Valley.)
In a conversation with the L.A. Times after the flip, decades-long former L.A. City Councilman and L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky predicted that: “a Raman victory would embolden the movement that rallied for her—younger, grassroots activists who favored Bernie Sanders and are frustrated with City Hall—to get even more involved in the 2022 election, when eight council seats and three citywide seats will be up for grabs.”
Yaroslavsky—now in his 70s—was right. The post-boomers, millennials, and zoomers were just getting started with political campaigns in 2020—when only two city council districts were at stake—and are now in full swing as five times as many seats are up for grabs in addition to state and national congressional offices. As the Times’ David Zahniser recently noted , “[it’s] the most significant turnover in political leadership at City Hall since 2013.”
Most importantly, L.A.’s 2022 candidates for public office are far more reflective of the diversity embodied by the city’s first familias than what’s been the case in decades, and have likewise hit the ground running against the city’s more established political class. Four years ago, by 2018’s primary, candidates had raised up to $4.5 million for their contests by the start of the year. As of January of this year, candidates raised four times as much at nearly $18 million.
The question thereby facing more than a few L.A. City Council incumbents is if the diversity of these new challengers, combined with the larger funds they’re attracting—plus new access to voting from universally mailed ballots—are enough to get more L.A. voters to turn out than what’s historically been true for primaries. The recent upswing in political engagement—along with careful consideration of 1969, 1992, and 2020’s elections—suggests this should be the case. But let’s look even more closely at the two major primaries over the last decade to place this June’s into more perspective, starting with Council District 13, when Mitch O’Farrell took over for Eric Garcetti.
In 2013, after 12 years of keeping the district open for business, Garcetti was finally ready to upstage dad, who was L.A.’s District Attorney during the 1990s, and move on to the mayor’s office. To usher in a subsequent wave of gentrification after him in the area was former staffer O’Farrell. So on to the primary they both went.
The primary election for March 2013 saw only 21% of L.A.’s 1.8 million registered voters—or less than 400,000 people—submit a ballot. For the mayor’s race, out of eight other candidates, Garcetti’s campaign managed to get just over 1/3 of the vote. 33% in the contest was nothing to write home about, but it still advanced Garcetti and second-place Wendy Greuel to a runoff in June of 2013. Garcetti then claimed victory when an additional two percent of L.A.’s voters cast their ballots. As the L.A. Times remarked about the number of ballots cast in that contest: it was “the lowest in any two-candidate runoff in the past 100 years.”
Back in “the Hollywood district,” as it was known to pundits at the time, less than 1/4th of CD-13’s voters chose between O’Farrell and 11 other candidates. O’Farrell eked out just 19% of these voters’ support, or less than 4,600 votes, but the rate still advanced him and second-place John Choi to their own runoff in June 2013. As a decades-long resident in CD-13, there was certainly a time when I wondered what would have been had Choi defeated O’Farrell in that close runoff. But the fact is that like his rival, Choi was also an “insider,” specifically a former Public Works Commissioner for the city. Similarly, though Greuel lost to Garcetti by just a couple of ten thousand votes, she was a City Controller for L.A. from 2009—2013, hardly a stray from the normal resemblances between high-profile names for public office.
Today, by contrast, the mayor’s office in June 2022’s ballots counts 12 different candidates, at least two of whom—Gina Viola and Alex Gruenenfelder Smith—are stated police abolitionists and supporters of Black Lives Matter, the first in the city’s nearly 172 years under U.S. jurisdiction. In CD-13, while one of the top three challengers to Mitch O’Farrell, Kate Pynoos, has previous experience in public office as a staffer for City Council representative Mike Bonin, her peers in fundraising and online presence, Hugo Soto-Martinez and Albert Corado, are both first-time candidates for an office at City Hall. Corado is also a police abolitionist, while Soto-Martinez is an organizer with Unite Here Local 11, which represents hospitality workers across Los Angeles; both are substantially distinguished from most of 2013 and 2017’s candidates for the district.
With this in mind, let’s zoom in on 2017’s primary one more time. Data provided by Tableau Public, an open-source data website, shows not just how many people were registered and voted in that election, but also considerable demographic info.
In 2017’s primary, when it came to registration, the group with the lowest registration rate was voters 18-24 years old at 9%. Voters aged 35-44, 45-54, and 55-64 had similar registration rates at 18%, 15%, and 15%, respectively, while voters aged 25-34 had the highest registration rate, taking up 24% of the rolls. Just after this group were voters 65+, taking up 20%.
In terms of ethnicity or race, white voters accounted for 52%, or over half of all registrations. Latinx voters accounted for 35%, and Asian-Americans and African-Americans accounted for 9% and 4%, respectively. Together, then, non-white voters took up 48% of voter registrations before election day.
Assuming most of these folks received a ballot well before election day, the potential for a diverse and multi-generational turnout was definitely there; instead, recall that just 17% of these registrations translated into votes by the time the primary was over. It’s when we look at data for the number of returned ballots, then, that we start to see how major “drop-off” or “disappearance” of ballots took place along categories of race, age, and class.
First, returned ballots from voters by election day in 2017 showed that 18-24 year olds turned in an exceptionally low rate at 3%. The rate for voters aged 25-34, 35-44, and 45-54 year olds was similar at 14%, 13%, and 13% again, respectively. A significantly higher number of returned ballots came from voters aged 55-64 years old at 17%. But the highest number of returned ballots—40%—came from voters 65+. As such, the age group with the greatest drop-off or “disappearance” after registration was the 25-34 year old category, while the group with the largest boost were Seniors or baby boomers.
Secondly, when it came to racial data for ballots returned by or just after election day, white voters took up more than 3/5ths, or a super-majority of the category at 68%, which was also 16 percentage points more than their registration rates before election day (52%). Asian-American, Latinx, and African-Americans, on the other hand, accounted for 32% of returns, creating a drop-off of 16 percentage points less than their registration numbers prior to election day (48%). White voters not only accounted for more registrations prior to election day, then, but also saw more physical turnout for the vote than their non-white counterparts.
Asian-American voter turnout for returned ballots by election day increased by two points relative to their registration, while for Black voters, the rate of returned ballots fell slightly by 1%. But the group which saw the greatest “disappearance”of voters was Latinx, with a 17% “loss” of ballots, or half of their rate of registration prior to election day.
The final key data point provided by Tableau Public shows the rate of registrations versus ballots returned between renters and homeowners. During registration, or before election day, renters accounted for 42% of registrations, while homeowners took up 34% of the portion. The data is not clear on what the living situation of the remaining 24% of registrants was, but by election day, homeowners accounted for 49% of the ballots turned in, while ballots from renters, on the other hand, made for 40%. Renters lost a couple of points by the day of the election, then, while homeowners surged in double-digits.
With all of these data points combined, we can note with certainty that nearly seven out of ten mailed ballots for the 2017 primary were from white voters, and that four out of ten were from voters 65+. We can also note that nearly half came from those who owned a home in L.A. County, while three out of ten were from Latinx, Black, or Asian-American voters, with apartment renting likely concentrated among them.
In other words, the people who came out most were L.A.’s older, wealthier, and whiter voters at the same time that Latinx voters in particular—the city’s largest single ethnic group—saw a substantial loss of voting power by the day of the vote relative to their registrations prior to it, all key data-points for the current set of campaigns to keep in mind.
Questions facing not incumbents, then, but challengers, from Hugo Soto-Martinez, Kate Pynoos, and Albert Corado in CD-13, to Eunisses Hernandez in CD-1 and beyond, are clear and simple: Can their campaigns appeal to seasoned and consistent voters, including older white homeowners, as well as Black, Latinx, and Asian-American voters? And can they bring in “newer” participants, especially younger and Latinx voters, whose turnout hasn’t been as “reliable” in previous political campaigns?
If so, then coupled with the symbolic power of their fresh and diverse faces, June 2022’s primary turnout is poised to leave 2017’s in the dustbin. Turnout might not reach the all-time high for local primaries—also set in the 1960s at 66%—but should certainly be at least double, if not triple 2017’s rate, which may be all that’s needed to make the difference.
One last glance back at the election years of 1969, 1992, and 2020 is important. The first marked just four years after the Watts Rebellion; the second, just seven months after outrage over the Rodney King verdict; and the third, only five months after nationwide protest in the name of George Floyd; in each of these timelines, anti-Blackness was at the center of the question on justice in cities across the U.S.
Today, few injustices in these cities are more overt than that of homelessness. In L.A., it has translated for decades into Black people accounting for 34% of the unhoused population despite purportedly making up just 8% of the county’s 10 million residents, or four times their demographic share.
In late 2021, after an “L.A. County Homelessness Survey,” the L.A. Times’ David Lauter published words that in the U.S. should read as more than copy, but as indictments against municipal governments under the 14th amendment:
“Nearly half of Black voters in Los Angeles County have been homeless, have experienced housing insecurity in the past year or know someone who has — a significantly larger share than for other racial and ethnic groups, according to a new poll.”
Homelessness—and the policing of Black bodies associated with it— has touched every neighborhood in the city since even before the 1960s and continues to do so, including in East Hollywood. As recently as 2017, Black residents made up just 2.4% of the neighborhood, but accounted for 13% of those arrested by police, or six times their demographic share. In 2019, former L.A. Homelessness Services Director Peter Lynn noted that “there is probably no more single significant factor than incarceration in terms of elevating somebody’s prospects of homelessness.”
Voters in neighborhoods across Los Angeles should make no mistake about it, then. Over these next six weeks, despite the repeated lousiness and seeming ineffectiveness of the voting process—particularly for workers and their families—there’s nothing less than an historic referendum on anti-racism on the ballot, or the most critical one since voters nearly elected L.A.’s first Black mayor in 1969.
Although flawed in several ways, after his successful election in 1973, Bradley went on to serve the office’s longest term of all time at 20 years, going on to champion and oversee construction of Metro’s Blue Line in 1990. The Blue Line ushered in a new era for public transit, including East Hollywood’s local Red Line in 1999, which has played a key role in connecting the area with the rest of the city. Both services, like Metro as a whole, remain lousy and constantly ineffective as well, but nonetheless continue expanding in opportunity, albeit incrementally, as more time passes.
There’s also no telling just what the city’s first non-male mayor in its nearly 241 years in existence could achieve for voters with a term or two onto 2030, and all the more so given L.A. city hall’s historically inequitable—and often compromised—structure in any case. But given Gina Viola’s strong position on divestment from incarceration for L.A.’s most vulnerable communities—especially Black Lives—which is also a policy that’s gained increasing momentum at the voting booths over the last decade, it sure is something different for the city and its neighborhoods in generations; in fact, with the data and ground-game in mind, it’s an unprecedented opportunity.