In the past few city elections, most South Gate public officials won their office with a couple of thousand votes or fewer.
A little more than 40,000 voters are registered, but in the past five years, fewer than 10,000 voted for their local officials.
“It takes 1,500 votes to get elected to City Council, give or take,” said Vice Mayor Bill DeWitt, who has served on the council on and off since 1980. During his last re-election in 2009, he won with just 1,350 votes in an uncontested race. “It is a pretty small percentage,” he acknowledges.
Low voter participation in municipal elections is not unique to South Gate. Many municipalities also suffer from low voter participation.
“It is often between 8 to 15 percent of the electorate that turns out,” said Margo Reeg, voter service chairwoman for the Los Angeles County League of Women Voters, a nonprofit that promotes active participation in government. “It is fairly typical for Los Angeles County.”
Municipal officials do not think that apathy is the main reason for South Gate's low voter turnout. Instead, they believe South Gate residents are simply too busy to get to the polls during election season.
“Their concerns are much more focused on school and getting ahead,” said Carmen Avalos, the city clerk since 2001. In her last election in 2009, she won with 1,811 votes and also ran unchallenged. “They are just very busy.”
South Gate's preoccupation with school, employment and other aspects of life over voting could be tied to traits of its large Latino demographic, some elected leaders speculate. These characteristics could explain why residents do not actively participate in city elections.
“A large part of the population are immigrants, are working two jobs and don’t have time to get involved,” said Councilman Henry Gonzalez. “Their kids are the same; they are going to school and working afterwards,” he said.
Gonzales has served intermittently since 1982. He was re-elected to City Council in March with 1,954 votes.
According to the 2010 Census, 45.1 percent of South Gate residents were born outside of the United States. Many of them may want to vote, but are not able to due to their immigration status.
Officials speculate, too, that residents are not aware of the services the city provides and as such don't understand the importance of government in their lives.
“The council members you are electing are the ones providing services for the community,” said Mayor Maria Davila, who was last re-elected in March with 1,977 votes. “For me, choosing your own council members is more important than [picking] the president.”
Lack of awareness about local government's role affects many municipalities.
“People forget that their school boards and city council are making decisions with their money,” said Reeg, money that is spent on essential services like schools, police, parks, roads, and trash collection. “The lower the level of government, the less interest there is.”
Controversial issues can rev up voters and draw crowds to the polls. So South Gate's current stable political climate may also account for why residents aren't flocking to the polls.
“Until it is an issue...that affects you, your wallet, or the restrictions of what you may or may not or do with your house, that is when people get more involved, when it becomes personal,” said Councilman Jorge Morales, a first-time elected official who won in March with 2,154 votes.
The last time South Gate experienced a large turnout was during the recall elections of 2003. That year, the community took to the polls to oust its controversial treasurer, Albert Robles, along with several other elected officials associated with him. Robles was later convicted on a total of 30 counts, including money laundering and bribery.
The combined votes in the different recall elections affecting incumbents totaled over 6,000 and each new official won election on average with over 4,000 votes.
Some voters have become active voters as a result of past scandals, which they believe could happen again. One sees his vote as a way to signal his vigilance.
When asked why he votes, Luis Martinez, 39, a self-employed mechanic and 10-year resident of South Gate, said: “To make [things] happen right.”
“There's always been wrong stuff going on through here,” he said.
Some residents said they don't bother casting their vote because they feel that politicians are not influenced by their concerns once they win the election.
"I feel like [elected officials] don't take the voters into account," said Yecenia Ramirez, 32, and longtime resident of South Gate. "That's why personally, I don't vote."
In Lynwood, there are 21,665 registered voters. During the last election in November 2011, just 3,005 went to the polls.
While, in Baldwin Park, there are more than 26,000 registered voters, but in the last election, fewer than 4,500 went to the polls, according to Mayor Manuel Lozano.
“Unfortunately, people don't go out and vote like they should,” said Lozano, who is serving his sixth term as Baldwin Park mayor. It is important that people get involved. They have to know what is happening so their voice can be heard, not just here, but in Washington,” he added.
In order to accommodate voters, the South Gate city officials are planning to make a concerted push to inform citizens about mail voting. They believe more people will participate if they become aware of this flexible option.
“ [That is] one of the ways we could possibly enhance our voting record is by allowing people to have more opportunities to vote by mail,” said Avalos. She also suggested a safe drop box in the City Clerk’s office where people could turn in their ballots early.
“We are going to see what we can do to have an increase voter turnout,” she said.
But although the city wants to increase voter numbers, at least one councilman argues that an informed voter is more valuable than the participation of many who are not informed.
“I would rather have people not vote than just vote for the prettiest flyers that go out there,” said Councilman Gil Hurtado, who was re-elected with 1,243 votes in an uncontested election in 2009. “That is why we got in trouble during the Robles era; people need to do their homework.”