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LA's preliminary results show wins for Garcetti and Measure H, defeat for Measure S

A woman looks at balloons covering a polling place at the Hollywood Sunset Free Clinic in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles as voters went to the polls on March 7, 2017. David McNew/Getty Images

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti easily won re-election over a field of 10 challengers Tuesday, with semi-official returns showing he drew more than enough support to avoid a runoff in May.

Measure H, the countywide sales tax increase to fund services for the homeless, was holding on to a win based on the preliminary count, barely capturing the 2/3 vote of approval required for passage. 

Voters also rejected the controversial Measure S on the city ballot that would have restricted development for two years. Millions were spent on the proposal by both sides of the issue, generating heated debate over L.A.'s building process and its severe lack of affordable housing.

Final results will take some time — the L.A county registrar is set to certify the election on March 31. But the depth of voter disengagement that has marked off-year elections emerged once again despite the significant races and proposals on Tuesday's ballot.

As of early Wednesday morning, county registrar Dean Logan announced 593,233 ballots had been counted, with 11.29 percent of eligible registered voters casting ballots. As a point of comparison, that is about 3 percentage points lower than the preliminary results back in 2013. 

The turnout rate will likely change. More ballots still need to be processed, according to Logan's statement, with the next vote count update scheduled for Friday.

At his campaign party Tuesday night, the mayor declared victory early in the evening, and addressed the new political reality under President Donald Trump. 

"We always have to ask: What voices aren't we hearing? Who don't we see? Who feels defensive right now? And stop thinking about the most powerful man in the country and start thinking about the most vulnerable people in our city," he told supporters as reported by NBC4.

Garcetti's margin of victory is being watched by some as an early measure of how the mayor might fare as a candidate for higher office. He has said he is focused on his current job but has not ruled out running for another post. His name is often floated as a possible future candidate for U.S. Senate.

His strongest mayoral challenger, Mitchell Schwartz, attracted 8 percent of the votes counted thus far to Garcetti's 81 percent.

If the lead holds, Measure H, the sales tax increase for homeless services, will amount to about an extra penny for every $4 spent on taxable items. It’s estimated that about $350 million will be raised for programs to reduce and prevent homelessness. The tax increase will expire or be renewed by voters in 10 years.

The controversial Measure S proposal would have imposed restrictions on development and curtailed certain types of real estate projects over the two years. Garcetti played a high-profile role in urging voters to reject the measure.

Supporters of the measure said the kinds of apartment buildings being developed n the city lead to gentrification, higher rents and more traffic. Opponents argued the proposal would stop needed housing construction and add to the city's affordable housing crisis.

Measure M and N would start the process of rule writing to regulate marijuana in the city of L.A., covering issues like taxes, penalties and licensing. City officials backed Measure M and eventually so did the authors of Measure N. That could explain the preliminary results, with Measure M winning nearly 80 percent support among voters and Measure N headed for defeat.

Eight L.A. City Council races were on the ballot. In the open race representing District 7, Monica Rodriguez was leading followed by Karo Torossian. If their positions hold, they will face off in the general election.

Although there were strong challenges in other council districts, the power of incumbency helped re-elect councilmembers Paul Koretz, Curren Price, Mitch O'Farrell, Mike Bonin and Joe Buscaino. All were leading by wide margins in early returns. 

Gil Cedillo was leading in his district with a bare majority in the preliminary count, but may not dodge a runoff against challenger Joe Bray-Ali.

Incumbent Bob Blumenfield faced no opposition and automatically won re-election.

L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer and Controller Ron Galperin faced no opposition and were returned to their posts.

Los Angeles Unified School District

In the race for control of the Los Angeles Unified School District board between pro- and anti-charter school interests, board president Steve Zimmer was leading in his key race. But Zimmer — who has the support of the teachers union UTLA —  may be thrown into a runoff with challenger Nick Melvoin, who is supported by charter backers.

Mónica García, a friend of charters, appeared headed to winning her seat outright. And for the open seat in District 6, Kelly Fitzpatrick-Gonez and Imelda Padilla will likely move on to the general election runoff.

This year’s race for the L.A. school board has so far been the most expensive campaign the nation’s second-largest school district has seen in at least a decade.

Outside political groups spent millions on phone-bankers, neighborhood canvassers, TV and direct-mail advertisements and consultants in hopes of influencing the outcome. These “independent expenditures” have so far totaled $5.4 million — already a record-setting mark for an L.A. Unified primary election campaign.

Three Los Angeles Community College trustee candidates were leading in semi-official counts: Steven Veres, Ernest H. Moreno and Gabriel Buelna. Those with the most votes automatically win the seats without a runoff.

Voter turnout

As with the county as a whole, the preliminary voter turnout for the L.A. city election falls in line with historically low showings for local elections. As ballots are counted through March, the number will improve, but it is unlikely to dramatically exceed previous numbers.

Just about 23 percent of voters cast a ballot in the 2013 open mayoral contest.

"I think L.A. has always had a semi-disengaged civic culture,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. He said the city's low turnout is a pattern that goes back 50 or 60 years.

Low voter turnout doesn’t automatically indicate frustration or apathy among voters, according to Sonenshein. Low turnout may indicate that some voters are simply satisfied with the status quo.

“City elections are funny because sometimes it seems like people just want to be left alone,” he said. 

Fernando Guerra, Loyola Marymount University professor of political science and a KPCC trustee, said the dismal turnout shows why off-year elections don't work.

"This is a classic example, it’s going to be a historic low. Even supposedly the city and the state ... are mobilized for a variety of reasons, yet people don’t know that there’s an election going on," he said.

Starting in 2020, the city will be synced with state and national elections in an effort to boost voter turnout. To get to that point, city officials elected in this week's contests will serve 5 1/2 year terms.

KPCC (89.3 FM) will have more election coverage on Wednesday. Reporters Josie Huang, Rina Palta and Jacob Margolis analyze the results on Measures H, S, M and N on Take Two, which begins at 9 a.m. Then on All Things Considered in the afternoon, reporter Kyle Stokes discusses the LAUSD election.

This story has been updated.