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What would it take to reverse LA's dismal voter turnout?

FILE PHOTO: A man marks his ballot during a local mayoral election on May 21, 2013 in Los Angeles. Officials expect Tuesday's local election will have one of the lowest turnouts in history.
FILE PHOTO: A man marks his ballot during a local mayoral election on May 21, 2013 in Los Angeles. Officials expect Tuesday's local election will have one of the lowest turnouts in history.
David McNew/Getty Images

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At the Robert F. Kennedy High School in Koreatown on Thursday, teenagers sat patiently in the library as they listened to a series of speakers talk about the virtues of voting.

Still too young to legally drink alcohol or drive with a regular license, the 16- and 17-year-olds can now sign up online to cast a ballot when they turn 18. 

Secretary of State Alex Padilla headlined the event to officially launch the online program at Kennedy High, just two days after Los Angeles County recorded what may be its lowest voter turnout in history based on Tuesday's preliminary election results.

"Help us spread the word. Talk to your friends, talk to your family members. Post about it, tweet about it," Padilla said. He told the young crowd that he'd already posted about it on Snapchat.

Tuesday's 11.29 percent voter turnout pegged to semi-official results disheartened some election officials. It set off conversations on why voter participation has fallen and what it would take to improve engagement. 

Jen Tolentino, the Los Angeles-based director of policy and civic technology at Rock the Vote, said many expected turnout would be stronger given the protests and passion displayed across the city following the presidential election.

"That number overall is very disappointing," said Tolentino. "We clearly did not really see that." 

Two main challenges in increasing turnout will be educating people about local elections and channeling people's engagement with national issues to the local level, she said.

Pre-registering teens could be one piece of the puzzle in turning things around. But election officials and those who study voter participation say a major change should come when the city and county sync their elections to state and national elections when many more people cast ballots.

For Los Angeles, that will first happen in 2020.

Other changes taking effect that elections officials hope will help increase turnout include early voting, election day registration, extending the time for vote by mail ballots to arrive and be counted, and a shift in some areas of the state to in-person voting that will span over several days. 

Fernando Guerra, political science professor at Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles and a KPCC board trustee, said Los Angeles is not unique in seeing voter turnout plummeting.

Every major city that has not scheduled its elections at the same time as statewide and national elections are seeing similar trends, he said Thursday on AirTalk.

Several other factors are playing a part in the decline, he said. One example: "Elections are not dealing with the major wedge issues in America." Topics like immigrant rights, gay marriage or abortion that mobilize voters aren't part of local elections, he said.

Even seemingly important issues like Measure S on the city ballot, aimed at slowing the growth of development, and Measure H, the county sales tax increase to fund homeless services, weren't enough to attract crowds to the polls.

The number of ballot items also factors into turnout. KPCC's analysis of preliminary results on Measure H show that when the proposal was the only item on the ballot, turnout was lower than in areas with multiple races and/or measures.

Turnout in the 29 cities within L.A. county with only Measure H was 8.88 percent, according to semi-official results posted by the Los Angeles Registrar/Recorder's office. That compares to turnout in 36 cities with more than that one measure where turnout was 13.03 percent. 

Geography also played a part in turnout: Palos Verdes Estates, Redondo Beach, La Verne and Claremont all recorded turnout larger than 20 percent while that for Lynwood and Bell Gardens was less than 5 percent.

At least 294,900 ballots are left to verify and count, according to county data released Wednesday. County elections officials will accept vote by mail ballots through Friday that were postmarked on or before March 7.

Back at Kennedy High School, students touch on another factor that can contribute to low turnout: the talk in their classrooms is all about national politics, not local elections.

Maria Velasco, a high school senior, said she didn't realize there was a local election this week until after it had happened. Although three school board seats were on the ballot, she said she doesn't know a single person who had voted.

She said her teachers don't talk about municipal elections. "For right now, I think what they're paying more attention is on the elections for President Donald Trump and all these things of what he's doing to us." 

Depending on where they live, voters will have other opportunities to go to the polls before local elections fall in line with California and national elections.

Next up is the special election on April 4 to fill the 34th Congressional District seat. That office was previously held by Xavier Becerra, now the state attorney general.

Then on May 16, there's the general election runoff for local races where candidates didn't get a majority of the votes in Tuesday's primary election to win outright.