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Civics & Democracy

What We Know So Far About How Many SoCal Voters Are Turning Out For The 2020 Election

Rows of bright yellow vote stations
People vote at the Forum on the last day of early voting for the 2020 election.
(Frederic J. Brown
Getty Images)
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In Los Angeles, election officials have already received 2.9 million ballots. In Orange County, the figure surpassed 1 million over the weekend. It's nearing 600,000 in Riverside County. And across the United States, more than 80 million ballots have been cast.

Do the sky-high early voting numbers mean we'll see record turnout in 2020?

They're certainly a good sign, experts say. But thanks to California's voter-friendly laws, it takes weeks to tally every ballot, and that means we may not know the precise turnout figures until after Thanksgiving.

How Turnout Is Tallied

Millions of ballots have already arrived at counting centers, but election officials still have to process them. That involves checking signatures, tallying write-in votes and inspecting damaged ballots.

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Other votes will arrive on election night. In Los Angeles, some are transported to counting centers by sheriff's deputies in helicopters and on boats.

And other ballots won't arrive until days, or even weeks, after the election. Vote-by-mail ballots that arrive as many as 17 days after Nov. 3 will still be counted, so long as they are postmarked by Election Day.

So the vote counting will take time. County officials have 30 days certify the results, if they need them.

When asked if we can trust the turnout figures we hear on election night, Kim Alexander of the California Voter Foundation was blunt: "No. Turnout numbers on election night, not just in California, but all over the country, are preliminary. And they don't include all of the ballots that were cast."

Alexander and other voting experts were initially skeptical about reading too much into 2020's early voting numbers. But the votes just keep pouring in. "I am super encouraged by what we're seeing," Alexander said.

So how high could turnout get? Predicting an exact number is a fool's errand, said USC's Mindy Romero, founder and director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy.

Still, she wouldn't be surprised if Los Angeles County's turnout tops 70%, a figure not seen since 2008.

Turnout Trends

Huge majorities of Californians used to turn out -- to vote for presidential candidates like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Jimmy Carter.

In the 1964 presidential contest, when Lyndon Johnson squared off against Barry Goldwater, 88.4% of residents cast a ballot (most of them were for LBJ, who carried the state easily). But turnout figures have slipped in recent decades, as the state's electorate has grown.

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Los Angeles County typically posts lower turnout than the state as a whole -- under 70% in several recent presidential races.

(Aaron Mendelson/LAist)

Presidential general elections tend to excite far more voters than any other contest. In recent L.A. mayoral elections, barely one-fifth of voters have shown up. Future L.A. mayoral elections will align with state and national contents, in hopes of drawing more voters to the polls.

Election experts are watching not just how many people vote, but who votes.

"The voting electorate in California is not representative of the state's population," said Romero. "So any given election, those who are actually casting a ballot, that group is higher income, more educated, older and whiter than the rest of the state."

High turnout tends to produce a more representative electorate, and Romero said she is hopeful for strong youth Latino turnout in 2020.

Romero's Center for Inclusive Democracy is leading an effort to track the early vote this year in L.A. County. So far, they've found more than 36% of registered voters have cast ballots -- a number that will only rise in the coming days.

But not all neighborhoods are voting at the same rates. A detailed map of early ballots cast by voting precinct shows elevated turnout in West L.A. and the San Gabriel Valley. But large parts of the county, including South and East L.A., are not seeing voters turn out at the same rates.

A screenshot of the Center for Inclusive Democracy's map showing early voting rates by precinct

"There are big swaths in the core of L.A., communities that have more voters of color, more traditionally underrepresented communities when it comes to the ballot box, that are participating in higher numbers than we've seen before. But they're still much lower than other neighborhoods," Romero said.

The way we count turnout also focuses on registered voters, leaving several groups out of the picture.

That's because turnout is a math problem -- you divide the number of votes by the number of registered voters. But people who could register but haven't, and ineligible residents such as minors, incarcerated people and non-citizens, aren't included, even if elected officials are expected to voice their concerns.

Updated November 2, 2020 at 8:52 AM PST
This story was originally published on Oct. 30 and was last updated Nov. 2.
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