Politics

After another low turnout LA area election, what does it take to get people to vote?

Voting booths at the Maurice Sendak Elementary School sit empty in North Hollywood during the April 3, 2018 special elections for three open state Assembly seats.
Voting booths at the Maurice Sendak Elementary School sit empty in North Hollywood during the April 3, 2018 special elections for three open state Assembly seats.
Mary Plummer/KPCC

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UPDATE: April 12 - The Los Angeles County Registrar's office has released certified special election results. Officials counted a total of 85,083 ballots in Assembly Districts 39, 45 and 54, with a turnout among L.A. County eligible voters of 10.8 percent. The lineup going into the general election did not change. Full L.A. County results are available at lavote.net.

The headline in Tuesday's special elections isn't the outright win captured by one state Assembly candidate or the runoffs that the top finishers in two other districts now face. 

Instead it's the low turnout in yet another Los Angeles area election. Despite accusations of sexual misconduct against the sitting lawmakers that forced their resignations in two of three districts where voters are selecting interim replacements, Los Angeles County voter participation came in at 8.23 percent based on semi-official results. 

That number may improve somewhat as remaining ballots are counted — ballots, for example, are still arriving by mail. But the turnout won't increase significantly. Election officials are expected to complete the next vote count update Friday. 

The special elections took place primarily in L.A. County where about 790,000 eligible voters reside. About 1,300 additional eligible voters live in Ventura County.

One candidate in former state Assemblyman Sebastian Ridley-Thomas' district secured more than enough votes Tuesday to win the special election for the ex-legislator's west Los Angeles seat.

Sydney K. Kamlager, district director for Democrat state Sen. Holly Mitchell, captured nearly 69 percent of the votes cast in District 54 to serve out Ridley-Thomas' remaining term that runs to December. Ridley-Thomas stepped down late last year because of health problems.

The top finishers in two other state Assembly special elections are poised to move on to runoffs in June after they failed to draw more than 50 percent of the votes needed to win outright.

Winners of the runoff elections serve until Dec. 3. A separate primary election for the next full state Assembly term, which lasts two years, also takes place on June 5. If needed, runoffs will be held in November.   

Although all three districts are solidly Democratic, Republicans did well overall and low turnout may have played a part. GOP candidates are currently second in the vote counts for Districts 39, formerly represented by Democrat Raul Bocanegra, and District 45, once represented by Democrat Matt Dababneh.

Both Bocanegra and Dababneh resigned after becoming ensnared in sexual harassment allegations.

The Republicans' showing means they are on track to make the runoff in June, where they will go head-to-head against the Democratic frontrunners. The results may reflect the strength of Republican voters: even though their numbers are declining, they more consistently show up to vote — an advantage in low-turnout elections.

Special elections have a very different dynamic than midterm elections. For example, media coverage is typically a lot less for local special elections. So yesterday's results don't portend much for this year's congressional elections, for example. 

High voter interest in the midterms is expected because major races in Southern California could help decide if Democrats can retake control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Several Republican congressional members representing districts turning more diverse are being targeted by Democrats for turnovers.

But it's difficult to predict what will get voters out to the polls short of a controversial presidential election.

Several Southern California lawmakers have been involved in sexual harassment scandals but the controversy failed to bring out more voters in the special elections.

"It doesn’t seem as though voters are making that connection between, you know, the Me Too movement and their intensity in turning out into voting and how they’re voting," said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., an elections research firm.  

Mitchell said while voters seem to care a lot about the sexual harassment issue, polls show they aren’t necessarily rating female candidates higher than their male peers.

Here are the leading candidates in each district and their share of the votes cast as of the latest tally:

State Assembly District 39 

This San Fernando Valley district includes Sylmar, San Fernando, Pacoima and parts of North Hollywood. Residents lost the district's representative after Democrat Raul Bocanegra resigned late last year following sexual misconduct allegations. "While I am not guilty of any such crimes," he said at the time, "I am admittedly not perfect."

State Assembly District 45

The district stretches from Chatsworth to Calabasas, and takes in Northridge, Reseda, Canoga Park, Woodland Hills and Encino. Democrat Matt Dababneh resigned in December after a lobbyist alleged he had sexually assaulted her in a bathroom, allegations that the legislator denied. 

State Assembly District 54

On resigning in late December, Ridley-Thomas said he had undergone five surgeries and needed time to recover. Ridley-Thomas is the son of L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. 

The district runs from Westwood to south of Leimert Park, taking in Palms, Culver City and Baldwin Hills. 

This story has been updated.