For California Democrats, sprawling Los Angeles County is the scary-looking guard dog that just won’t bark. In November’s election, California’s largest county was dead last in turnout, with just over 31 percent of registered voters casting ballots. And even that dismal number was a huge improvement from the June primary, when Los Angeles County turnout was 16.9 percent — also the lowest in the state. The dismal local turnout makes a difference, particularly to Southern California politicians who aspire to statewide office, like former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former Rep. Jane Harman. Both have been mentioned as potential candidates for the seat that Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer will be giving up after 2016. Plenty of politicians, consultants and academics blame the county’s turnout woes on the mail. “Los Angeles County is still suffering the effects of not embracing vote-by-mail years ago,” said Douglas Herman, a Democratic political consultant in Pasadena.
That’s important, because studies have shown people who automatically get their ballots by mail are more likely to vote. In November, for example, 38 percent of Los Angeles County’s voters cast mail ballots. The next-lowest percentage of mail ballots was 57 percent in Humboldt County, which had a 52 percent turnout.
That low percentage of mailed votes in Los Angeles County is no accident. Years ago, county officials decided that encouraging residents to vote by mail would bury the election office under a flood of postal ballots. So while counties across California have spent the past 20 years making it easier for voters to use their mailbox as a polling place, the state’s most populous county refused to go along.
Those days are past, said Dean Logan, who has been the county’s elections chief since 2008. “We now have the capacity to process more vote-by-mail ballots,” Logan said. “We’ve publicized VBM and encouraged people to sign up as permanent mail voters.”