On Tuesday, voters in Los Angeles, America's second-largest and 17th-best city, went to the polls to vote in city council elections. Some voters, anyway; about nine percent of those who were registered actually bothered to cast a ballot.
Why? For a few reasons.
First, because turnout in municipal primary elections is always fairly low. Paul Mitchell of the data firm Political Data, shared turnout rates in primary and run-off elections over the past several municipal cycles. Turnout on Tuesday, currently estimated at 8.6 percent, was the lowest since at least 2003.
That figure, though, is higher than several run-off elections. Which brings us to point number ...
Two, there weren't any terribly exciting races on the ballot. That sentence will make people mad, of course; candidates and their supporters always insist that they're exciting enough to see a groundswell of enthusiasm. The high points on the graph above include the relatively interesting 2013 mayoral election of Eric Garcetti, the 2009 reelection of then Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and the 2005 race between Villaraigosa and the incumbent mayor James Hahn. That race was a barnburner, and people turned out to vote in it.
Astute observers / mathematicians will note that the years on the graph are odd-numbered -- meaning that Los Angeles votes at a different time for city offices than for federal ones. There are arguments that can be made for and against this. One "for" argument is that it lets people focus on races that are locally important. One "against" argument is that people care far more about federal and state politics -- which get a lot more media attention, energy and money -- than local races, even in big cities.
Third, Tuesday's figure doesn't include every ballot. "City turnout will grow as they count more ballots," Mitchell said in an email to the Post. "In California, the law changed recently so that the county and cities have to accept mail-in ballots that were postmarked by Election Day. So numbers will grow until Friday at least." In other words: Turnout was higher than 8.6 percent -- we just don't know by how much.
And fourth, some small consolation: A lot of people still voted. We hate to harp on the idea that nine percent of A Big Number is also A Big Number, but 157,000 ballots have been counted so far in the city's races. That's one-third more than voted in the Republican primary election for Senate in Alaska last year, just to draw one contrast. This still means that only 4 percent of the city's population is choosing its leadership, which is not ideal in a representative democracy. (The Los Angeles Times talked to some of them.) But it's also not as though tumbleweeds were blowing across the city's streets. At least, not all of them.
A footnote: One of the things that people got to vote on on Tuesday was a proposal to align city elections with state ones; in other words, to move away from the off-year cycle. Proponents argued that it would help improve turnout.
That measure passed handily.