Big LA voter turnout turns the tables

Many local races upended by massive increase in voting
City Government


Illustration of LA's high voter turnout


Across Los Angeles, people in progressive circles are buzzing about urban planner Nithya Raman’s victory in the Fourth District City Council race. The first-time candidate, who boasted the endorsement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, positioned herself to the left of current officeholder David Ryu. This marks the first time in 17 years that a Los Angeles council incumbent has been felled.


Equally remarkable is the number of people who cast ballots for Raman. By the time Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean Logan finishes the tally (not expected until Nov. 19), Raman could nearly quintuple the number of votes Ryu received when he won the seat back in 2015. 


Winner vote tallies in recent Council District Four races

Massive turnout in LA's fourth council district


When former Councilmember Tom LaBonge won his final term in March 2011 by capturing 10,629 votes, he finished with 54.5% of the nearly 19,495 ballots that were cast in the Fourth District. Four years later, Ryu emerged from a 14-person primary and, in the May runoff election, grabbed 13,161 votes, giving him 54.8% of the 24,005 ballots cast.


By Saturday afternoon, Raman had more than 63,000 votes, and some 120,000 ballots in the Fourth District had been processed. Raman’s tally represents a nearly 600% increase over what LaBonge won with just nine years ago.


So what happened?


The big shift

In recent decades, Los Angeles was pilloried for its apathetic voting base–the contested 2013 mayoral election saw just 21% of eligible voters hit the polls, and turnout for council races was in the range of 10%. Good-government advocates have long sought to boost participation, and in 2015, voters approved amending the City Charter to shift elections from odd-numbered years to even years, and scheduling them with state and federal elections. 


The results were first borne out in the primary this March. Ryu received more than 34,000 votes and Raman finished with 31,502–each candidate alone surpassed the entire voting populace five years ago.


The other council race that went to a runoff and was decided last week also saw the winner’s vote tally soar over past elections. Mark Ridley-Thomas, an outgoing county supervisor seeking to win a spot representing the 10th District, already has nearly 40,000 more votes than the victor in 2015 claimed.


Voter vote tallies in recent LA Council District 10 races


Chart of voter turnout in LA's Council District 10

Ridley-Thomas, who has spent nearly three decades in elected office, boasted more than 49,000 votes as of the latest update from the Registrar-Recorder on Friday afternoon. That gives him 61.3% of the more than 80,000 votes cast, easily outdistancing attorney Grace Yoo.


The winning tally represents a more-than 520% increase over what Councilman Herb Wesson received five years ago when he won his final term. In that race, Wesson received 8,889 ballots, or 63.3% of the approximately 14,000 votes cast.


Some victory totals in last week’s county races have also risen compared with previous results, though the increase tends to be less dramatic than what was seen in city contests. That can be attributed to county elections already being aligned with state and federal voting–sizable crowds were already showing up.


Take the contentious race for District Attorney between two-term incumbent Jackie Lacey and George Gascon, the former San Francisco D.A. who, like Raman, is a darling of the progressive crowd.


Voter vote tallies in recent LA District Attorney races


Chart of voter turnout for the Los Angeles DA's race

By Friday afternoon, Gascon had received nearly 1.74 million votes, giving him 53.7% of the more than 3.2 million ballots cast in the county. (Lacey has conceded.) That’s in the ballpark of the 1.3 million votes Lacey received when winning a second term in 2016.


Still, there’s a twist: Lacey ran unopposed four years ago, meaning she won the race during the June primary, and did not compete in the November general election, when the battle between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton drew large numbers of Californians to the polls.


A more fitting comparison is 2012, when Lacey first won office. After emerging from a June primary, she finished first in the November general election with just over 1.5 million votes, and claimed 55.1% of the approximately 2.72 million votes cast.


How we did it: We looked at voting and turnout data from past elections posted by the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk and compared them with tallies from the Nov. 3, 2020 election. 


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