Election? What election? Apathy abounds as L.A. vote nears

Tabitha Benoy of Woodland Hills plans to skip Tuesday’s election for mayor of Los Angeles.

“It’s never even occurred to me to vote for the mayor,” said Benoy, a 37-year-old social worker who tends to vote for president and not much else. “It seems like there’s so many elections. It’s too much to deal with.”

Conditions are ripe for dismal voter turnout next week. Mayor Eric Garcetti faces only token opposition in his run for a second term. Nothing else on the ballot — including measures on marijuana and homelessness — has stirred much voter passion. And the rancor of the 2016 presidential race has left many voters exhausted.

In that climate, Los Angeles stands a good chance of hitting a record low for turnout in a mayoral election, upholding its reputation as a bastion of voter apathy.

“I don’t really even know the mayor’s name, to be honest with you,” said 25-year-old Jackie Riddle of Brentwood, an independent-living instructor for adults with disabilities.

In Riddle’s social-media circles, President Trump’s daily dramas dominate conversation these days. “There’s constantly people posting about that, but nothing local,” she said on a coffee break with a client in Westwood.

Recent interviews with nearly two dozen voters across Los Angeles made clear their overwhelming disengagement from local affairs. Many of them knew little or nothing about Garcetti.

“We’re lazy,” said Victoria Gonzalez, 53, who was walking her dog Trixie near her home in San Pedro. “That’s what it comes down to — just being lazy and thinking one vote isn’t going to help.”

Gonzalez was unaware that a city election was coming up. The media she consumes, she said, is too focused on the rich and famous, and not enough on local news.

The waning of L.A. politics coverage as news outlets have shrunk in recent years has indeed left many residents uninformed about what’s at stake on the ballot.

“I think it’s really hard for people to answer how my life will be different if I vote for ‘Candidate A’ or ‘Candidate B,’” said Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor who specializes in campaigns and elections.

L.A.’s confusing patchwork of place names adds to the problem, leaving many voters unsure whether they reside within the city’s boundaries.

Kojo Annor, 40, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years, wanted to vote for Garcetti next week. But Annor, a biotech engineer and immigrant from Ghana, didn’t realize that his move last year from Woodland Hills to Castaic made him ineligible to vote in the city election.

“Really?” he asked with a quizzical smile when told that he no longer lives in Los Angeles.

Sean Clegg, a Bay Area consultant who has worked on mayoral campaigns in both L.A. and San Francisco, said Los Angeles has one of the nation’s most apolitical urban cultures. “It’s a place so sprawling that a sense of community, and of your ability to have an impact on that community, feels much more like a drop in the ocean,” he said.

Mayoral elections in San Francisco often draw about double the voter turnout that they do in Los Angeles.

Racial strife has at times driven high turnout in L.A. It peaked at 76% in 1969, when Tom Bradley was running to become the city’s first black mayor. It spiked again when Richard Riordan was elected mayor in 1993, reaching 45% in the aftermath of riots sparked by the acquittal of white police officers in the beating of Rodney King, an African American.

But turnout dropped to a new low of 18% in 2009, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa won reelection after a somnolent race against largely unknown challengers.

Four years ago, even after a hard-fought and well-publicized race between Garcetti and several well-known rivals, just 21% of registered voters cast ballots in the primary for mayor.

In a heavily Democratic city where Trump has inspired big protests, one of the unknowns on Tuesday is whether voters’ newfound engagement in national politics might manifest itself in a boost in turnout, defying strategists’ expectations.

“The reason we have Trump is we’re not as engaged as we should be, and it all starts locally,” said Kiyomi Kowalski of West Hills as she strapped her toddler into a car seat after shopping in Woodland Hills. Kowalski, 38, attended a recent Trump resistance meeting in Silver Lake. She planned to vote for Garcetti on Tuesday.

In 2014, city voters approved a switch in the election calendar in an attempt to produce higher turnout. Starting in 2020, L.A. elections will occur at the same time as state and federal contests in even-numbered years, with a June primary and November general election. If Garcetti wins reelection, his term will last 5 ½ years, with a successor chosen in 2022.

Whether the shift in election timing will change the habits of voters like dentist Lin Lagunda of Panorama City is unclear. She sometimes votes for president, but never for mayor.

“I’m bad — I should,” she said on a trip to the bank after work. She said she wished the demands of everyday life left more time for things like voting. “All I know is I’m working, and I pay my bills, and I take care of my kids.”

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