Don't Blame Voter Apathy For Low Turnout In School Board Elections. Here's Who's Really At Fault

Jackie Goldberg, a candidate for L.A. Unified School Board, makes get-out-the-vote calls at her Silver Lake campaign headquarters on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

Turnout was depressingly low in last Tuesday's special election for an open seat on the Los Angeles Unified School Board — which surprised precisely nobody, least of all Lewis Myers.

And who's at fault for a turnout rate of 8.72%? Myers, an operative who helps run political campaigns, says it's not the voters; it's the political class.

"We community activists, political consultants and candidates should be embarrassed," Myers wrote in a scathing open letter last week, "at the lack of participation despite millions spent."

After doing consulting work for four of the race's 10 candidates during the LAUSD Board District 5 race, including a brief stint with runner-up Heather Repenning, Myers concluded the way candidates conducted their campaigns ensured "unactivated" residents would not turn out to vote — not in last Tuesday's race, and perhaps not ever.

"Our community," his letter continued, "is blind and those of us who can see are not helping those who require sight."

Myers' letter isn't an abstract exercise in assigning blame, he explained in a follow-up interview with KPCC/LAist. During the LAUSD race, he observed campaigns falling back on a common habit: focusing on reaching voters who have reliably turned out to vote in the past. Even school board campaigns have access to sophisticated data showing individual voters' turnout history. But in targeting the people who vote most consistently, they're ignoring residents with less-reliable voting records — who are now likely to be ignored in future races because of their history of not voting.

This "unactivated" voter "will never vote because he has never been engaged," said Myers, "and we will never engage him because he never votes."

EQUITY AND TURNOUT

Political scientists and fellow consultants say the vicious cycle Myers is speaking about is a real problem — and low turnout numbers are only the most obvious of the consequences.

"The political science data is overwhelming," said Loyola Marymount University political scientist Fernando Guerra, who also directs LMU's Center for the Study of Los Angeles, "that if you contact people, they're going to turn out."

"By only focusing on these so-called likely voters, [campaigns] are exacerbating the gap between lower socioeconomic status, minority voters and perhaps higher-socioeconomic status white voters," said Matt Barreto, a UCLA professor of political science and Chicano/a Studies.

LAUSD Board District 5 is a particularly stark example of this finding.

Solid majorities of students in the district's public schools are Latino. Roughly 56 percent of the registered voters in BD5 are Latino, according to publicly available counts from Political Data, Inc., a firm that sells voter history data to campaigns. But in BD5's last election — in 2015 — voter turnout was highest in neighborhoods in the district's northern portion: whiter, gentrifying, higher-income neighborhoods like Silver Lake, Eagle Rock, Highland Park and Los Feliz.

If voter history is the biggest predictor of whether a campaign makes contact, Myers said that meant there would be little outreach to voters in the more-heavily Latino southern portion of BD5, which includes the "southeast cities" of Bell, Huntington Park, Maywood and South Gate.

"If we don't go out there and engage," Myers said, "we're just going to have this conversation over and over — and we're only going to focus on that engaged higher-income voter who will dictate what's going on with a majority[-Latino] population."

Cynthia Gonzalez, a principal at a high school at the Diego Rivera Learning Complex in South L.A., speaks to a meeting of the East Area Progressive Democrats on Nov. 27, 2018. Gonzalez ran for the vacant L.A. Unified School Board seat once held by Ref Rodriguez. She received roughly nine percent of the vote in the March 2019 primary. (Photo by Kyle Stokes/KPCC)

WHY THIS MATTERS

Candidates' ethnicities received much more attention than voters' racial backgrounds during the LAUSD Board District 5 campaign.

In December, several Latino candidates went on the record with KPCC/LAist to complain that major endorsements in the March primary race for a "Latino seat" in BD5 seemed destined for white candidates. During the May runoff, the L.A. Times wrote a story noting both of the candidates who advanced to the runoff — Repenning and eventual winner Jackie Goldberg — were white women.

But Guerra and Barreto say the racial dynamics of who casts a ballot inevitably impact the race of the candidates on the ballot.

If this school board race was down-ballot from the November 2020 presidential race, Barreto said a non-Latino candidate "will look at that and say, 'I'm probably not going to beat one of the well-known Hispanic candidates who lives in this neighborhood.'"

"In a low-turnout election, a non-Latino candidate probably has a better chance," said Barreto.

Guerra said that makes selecting "a weird Tuesday" for an off-cycle special election highly problematic: "To me, that is voter suppression as bad as you see anywhere in the south."

"People are always cool about saying 'well, ethnicity doesn't matter in terms of representation,'" Guerra said. "Why can't a white elected represent a mostly Latino constituency? In theory, I'm totally agreeing with that. The issue is that it hardly ever happens the other way around.

A California primary voter shows the Spanish language I Voted sticker outside a polling station June 7, 2016 in San Diego. (Bill Wechter/AFP/Getty Images)

WHO BREAKS THIS CYCLE, AND HOW?

The best way to increase turnout, said Barreto and Guerra, is to make it much easier to vote.

In March 2020, L.A. County will ditch neighborhood polling places in favor of "vote centers." County residents will be able to vote in any one of these centers — not just the one closest to their home — for 11 days prior to Election Day. Same-day voter registration will also be available, Guerra said.

Also certain to improve turnout somewhat: starting in 2020, LAUSD elections will line up with even-year primary and general elections — meaning the presidential vote in November. (The BD5 seat will be up for grabs again.)

"We've changed every law, we're going to have a competitive election," Guerra said. "If this election cycle doesn't get you to turn out, we have to go back to the drawing board and figure out what it would take."

Veteran political consultant Michael Trujillo is a little less optimistic, noting that previous moves to lift barriers to voting — from making absentee voting easier to providing stamps for mail-in ballots — have had only modest results.

"Do all of these things help in terms of turnout? Yes," Trujillo said. "But the silver bullet for turnout — I think we're still mining that mine just to find the silver to put it on the bullet."

Trujillo places some of the onus on media outlets and news organizations to inform voters what's at stake in an election.

And in LAUSD, where most of the actual political spending comes from independent expenditure organizations that aren't constrained by tight campaign finance limits, Trujillo said some of the responsibility rests with the biggest spenders — United Teachers Los Angeles, SEIU Local 99 and the California Charter Schools Association — to inform voters that an election is even happening.

Though Myers criticized campaigns for sliding into habits of engaging only the likeliest of voters, he also said it's unrealistic to expect campaigns to engage low-propensity voters in high numbers.

"We're not getting paid to empower people," he said. "We're getting paid to win."

Adding to the challenge in L.A.: school board elections take place on a massive scale. Around 315,000 registered voters live in BD5. California's U.S. House candidates must speak to similarly sized constituencies — but are much less-constrained in their ability to raise money than LAUSD candidates.

But Barreto said campaigns can't be let off the hook.

"When we do low-propensity voter outreach, at least half of those people are like, 'You're the first person who's ever knocked on my door. This is amazing. I'm inspired. I'm going to vote,'" said Barreto, who also runs a polling firm called Latino Decisions.

"It's a myth that these voters require that much education," he added. "You have to go out and interact with them and tell them that you want their vote."