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Has Los Angeles always had a problem with low voter turnout?

Voters cast their ballots in the auditorium at Palms Elementary School in Culver City on March 5th, 2013.
Voters cast their ballots in the auditorium at Palms Elementary School in Culver City on March 5th, 2013.
Rebecca Hill/KPCC

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There's been a lot of talk about the lack of interest in the LA mayor's race, and discussion of why the turnout — perhaps only 20 percent — will be so low. KPCC's Steve Proffitt has been doing some research into the history of voting in Los Angeles.

Estimates say that only one in five registered voters in Los Angeles will vote today, but even that small percentage could be optimistic. In 2009, only 17 percent of the electorate voted to re-up Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. So a 20 percent vote would actually be an improvement.

RELATED: Charting voter turnout for mayoral elections

It hasn't always been this way, though. We're seeing record low turnout numbers here in the 21st century. Back in the day, as they say, turnouts of 50 percent were the norm in LA city elections. In 1969, participation peaked, more than three out of four registered voters cast their ballots.

That race, which ended up with Sam Yorty winning the run off, was marked by charges of racism. Turn out was also high four years later when Bradley took on Yorty again, and won. Since then, a steady decline in voter interest.

RELATED: LA Election Day FAQ: Everything you need to know to vote (map)

So how does Los Angeles compare to other cities? It's hard to make apples to apples comparisons. For one thing, LA has elections in odd-numbered years, when there are no congressional or presidential elections. As a point of fact, turnout in last year's presidential election was about 50 percent. Then there are races where a popular incumbent is running, without strong opposition. 

If we look at cities that also elect mayors in off years, we're not doing so good. In Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, former chief of staff in the Obama White House, won with a 42 percent turn out. That's about the same turnout for San Francisco's hotly contested mayor's race two years ago.

Still, the majority of voters stayed home, or didn't bother to even mail in a ballot. Even if we only manage to attract about 20 percent of voters today in Los Angeles, we're not the worst when it comes to civic engagement. Burbank held municipal elections last month and didn't reach 20 percent. But the real champion in voter disinterest seems to be the city of Amarillo, Texas. It's not a huge town, only a few more than 100,000 voters. But less than 7,000 of them showed up to vote for mayor last month.