#MakeAlCare: Sustaining voter engagement over the long term

Chef Al Gordon is the founder of Community in Los Feliz.
Chef Al Gordon is the founder of Community in Los Feliz.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Los Angeles County has the worst voter turnout in the state. Only about 8 percent of registered voters turned out for the city's March primary election . As part of an effort to tackle voter apathy we picked one person who doesn’t typically vote in local elections and tried to make him care: Al Gordon, a chef and partner at a restaurant in Los Feliz where he also lives.

Despite living in Los Angeles for more than a decade, Al had never voted in a local election until KPCC waged a campaign to #MakeAlCare. We got him a one-on-one meeting with a political scientist, took him to a candidate forum and asked our audience to chime in.

The good news: Al did vote in the March 3 primary election. The bad news: two races in his district weren’t decided during the primary and are headed for a runoff May 19. So recently we checked back in with Al to see if he still cares enough to vote in the second round.

RELATED: Are you planning to vote May 19? See our voter guide.

Al lives in Council District 4, where Carolyn Ramsay, former Chief of Staff for the current termed out council member Tom LaBonge, is facing off against David Ryu, a community healthy director. 

Al said he plans to vote for the same person. He figures he's already done the work and nothing has changed.

"Geez you know how much stuff I read? I had to research 14 candidates! If you can't handle two you might as well pack it up and leave L.A.," he said.

His point of view is pretty common. Research at Ohio State showed voters tend to make their minds up early, based on initial impressions.

Al was concerned about how a minimum wage hike would affect his bottom line and hoped his neighborhood would stay affordable for the young creatives who patronize his restaurant. He also keyed in early to the style and personality of the candidates during the primary.

But he doesn't really know what may have changed in the campaigns because he hasn’t stayed engaged over the past couple of  months. He wasn't even sure which day the election is held - though he had the week right. He thought it was Monday.

And that's common, too.

“It’s not uncommon in low salience elections like runoffs for even attentive voters to only pay attention at the very last moment,” said Donald Green, a political scientist at Columbia University who is an expert on the science of voter turnout.

Green said the very fact Al had voted once in a low-turnout election made it more likely that he would do it again -  even without the watchful eye and microphone of KPCC.

But USC Provost Professor Wendy Wood said it would take a few more times for Al to form a habit. Her research has shown that voting only a few times was likely to lead to a long-term voting habit, as long as you do it the same way each time.

“Habits are formed by voting in the same way,” she said. “So if voters move or if they mail in ballot sometimes, or show up at the polls sometimes, they’re not as likely to develop habits to continue to vote.”

RELATED: Don't know where to vote May 19? Find your polling place here.

And once a voting habit had formed, Wood said, voters didn’t require a high level of engagement in the issues of the election to turn out – it became more of an automatic activity.