Earlier this year, angry trash haulers helped mount a recall of two City Council members in Montebello who had voted to award an exclusive waste-hauling contract to a rival company.
Tens of thousands of dollars were spent. Dozens of complaints alleging harassment were filed with police during the campaign. But for all the furor, fewer than 10% of the city's voting-age population showed up to cast ballots.
The pattern is a familiar one in the small, scandal-plagued cities of southeast Los Angeles County. Whether in Montebello, Bell, Lynwood or almost any of their heavily immigrant, mostly Latino neighboring cities, elections are frequent, intensely fought and decided by tiny fractions of the population. The combination, experts say, contributes to chronic political unrest and opens the way to repeated incidents of corruption.
A Times analysis of voting records found that elections in these cities were more likely to have extremely low turnout than those elsewhere in Los Angeles County.
At the same time, these communities are hotbeds for politicking and electioneering. Even as the vast majority sits on the sidelines, a few political players engage in a frenzy of electoral activities, a merry-go-round of special elections and recalls that sweep many of the same faces — or members of the same families — in and out of office.
These elections are often swiftly followed by allegations of voting fraud, which are investigated by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. Of the roughly 160 complaints clearly identified as involving elections in Los Angeles County's 88 cities in the last decade, roughly one-third involved a dozen southeast cities.
"The danger here is that you have a small group running everything for their own benefit, rather than for the public good," said Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "The democracy isn't very healthy.... Low turnout is an invitation to misconduct."
Over the last decade, officials in Bell Gardens, Pico Rivera, South Gate, City of Commerce, Lynwood, Vernon, Compton and Huntington Park have been charged with or convicted of crimes such as election fraud and public corruption.
Bell is the latest city in the region to be hit by scandal. The district attorney charged eight current and former officials last month with public corruption charges, and many of the same officials are named in a civil suit by state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown. Related investigations are also underway in the neighboring cities of Vernon and Maywood.
The criminal charges in Bell focus in part on high salaries earned by top administrators and council members. Those salaries were made possible by a ballot measure that was approved in a 2005 election in which only 390 people — fewer than 2% of the voting age population — cast ballots.
That was the lowest turnout for any election in southeast Los Angeles County the last six years, but not by much. For last year's South Gate City Council election, 3% of the voting-age population turned out. And a 2007 recall election in Montebello drew 5% of the voting-age population.
The 2005 Bell election was held on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and only one item was on the ballot: Measure A, a proposal to convert from a general law city to a charter city, which allowed city officials to
sidestep limits on their salaries.
The timing of the election — on a day when few residents might be expected to be focused on politics — is no anomaly. The low-turnout special elections and recalls that are fixtures of the southeastern Los Angeles County cities often are scheduled for days that could be expected to keep turnout low.
At least 20 municipal elections in those cities since 2005 had turnouts lower than 10% of the voting-age population, according to the Times analysis. In 17 of those elections, there were only local issues on the ballot.
The Times analysis looked at turnout as a percentage of the adult residents of the city to get a sense of overall degree of civic participation. Many cities in the southeastern part of the county have large populations of immigrants who are not citizens and cannot vote, reducing the potential voter pool, but turnouts are more robust for balloting held on regular election days.
Outside the southeastern corridor, Rosemead and Monterey Park, which also have sizable immigrant populations, have seen their voting-age participation in recent local elections hover around 15%. In more affluent cities, including Beverly Hills, Claremont and Cerritos, by contrast, nearly one-quarter of the voting-age population participated in local elections.
Although few people vote in cities in southeast Los Angeles County, the politics are nonetheless intense, with politicians and special interests engaging in dozens of recalls and recall attempts.