The Story Behind the Eye-Popping Votes in Koreatown's Neighborhood Council Election

Koreatown

A large crowd waited for hours to vote in a Koreatown-area subdivision election. (Photo courtesy Koreatown resident and pastor Anna Olson)

A neighborhood council election this week in Koreatown on whether to break out a second district tied to the "Little Bangladesh" area brought out an eye-popping number of voters.

The number of votes, some 19,000 with more still to be counted, took the city clerk's office by surprise.

"Definitely the petition to subdivide caught the community by surprise," said Chris Garcia, a city project manager overseeing L.A.'s neighborhood council elections. "Combined with the campaign information that were from folks that were against the subdivision, I guess really activated the community against this motion."

After seeing the results, we wanted to know just how unusual that many votes in a neighborhood council election was. It wasn't just unusual, it's totally unprecedented.

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 2.06.47 PM[1].png

We looked back at almost two decades of neighborhood council elections. It was immediately clear this one smashed every record. It's not even close.

Neighborhood Council elections usually have less than 1,000 votes, and none has ever exceeded 10,000 before. Two years ago, more than a dozen neighborhood council elections citywide didn't even crack 100 voters.

Of course, there were a few things about neighborhood council elections that are different:

  • You only had to be 16 to vote.
  • You didn't have to live in K-Town
  • But you did have to prove a connection to the area. For example, you could show two receipts from stores or restaurants in the neighborhood to show you had a legitimate stake.

This election marked the fifth to consider subdividing an existing neighborhood council — there are currently 96 — since the city council opened the door to subdivision elections in 2016.

And those elections, ones proposing an existing neighborhood council be divided, have attracted increased attention, controversy and votes. A vote in May to split the Westwood council into two drew 3,521 voters. That figure is the second highest number of votes cast in a Neighborhood Council election.

Putting that in context is a little tricky. That's because voting isn't limited to residents of an area. Under the neighborhood council laws, those who live, work, own or participate in a neighborhood are all considered eligible to vote. That makes the total number of eligible voters unknowable. So we can't calculate more traditional turnout figures.

But we can see that the number of votes cast in Koreatown is outsized.

So why did so many people feel compelled to cast a ballot?

Neighborhood Councils don't typically grab headlines, but they wield power by serving as liaisons to City Hall, state politicians and Congressional offices. They can make influential recommendations on applications for new businesses and liquor licenses.

Each council gets about $42,000 annually from the city, which they can use at their discretion for everything from to giving money to schools or holding street fairs and farmers' markets.

"It's just serving as the voice of the community speaking on the behalf not for citizens who are normally registered voters but for everyone in the community," Garcia said.

Subdividing the Wilshire Center-Koreatown Neighborhood Council would result in a significant reduction in its jurisdiction. The would-be subdivision council's jurisdiction would be bounded by Melrose Avenue to the north, 5th Street to the south, between Western and Vermont avenues." This would mean lopping off the top part of the existing council's territory.

The election also comes after a contentious city council redistricting process in 2012, when Korean-Americans feared their community's political clout was being gerrymandered away.

Proponents of creating a Little Bangladesh Neighborhood Council said more representation is needed in the densely-populated area. The current council has the largest residential population of any in L.A. The proposal would have split the existing Wilshire Center-Koreatown council, with the area north of 5th Street going to the newly formed council.

But the proposed change upset many who feel a deep connection to the area.

Gilbert Yi, 50 of Cerritos, says he comes to K-Town almost every week to eat, go to church and see friends. He was one of the organizers of social media efforts to turn back the split.

"From my understanding is that long-term, they can start squeezing Koreans out of that area," Yi said.

Yi told KPCC/LAist the day after the election that a lot of Korean-Americans cherish the neighborhood. And they take pride in coming back after the decimation of the '92 riots.

"We rebuilt Koreatown," he said. "And if it ever changed, it'd be such a huge loss—for anybody."

There was passion among the "yes" voters too. People who wanted to see "Little Bangladesh" acknowledged say they continue to believe the proposal makes sense. More than 280 people voted for splitting up the council.

To give you some context: that's nearly five times the total votes cast in the Koreatown neighborhood council election six years ago. And it would have been a very respectable number in most neighborhood council elections.

After all, the previous record for votes cast in a non-subdivision neighborhood council election? Just 2,734 in Venice in 2016.

Josie Huang contributed to this report


News happens every day. Here at LAist, our goal is to cover the stories that matter to you and the community you live in. Now that we're part of KPCC, those stories (including this one you're on right now!) are made possible by generous people like you. Independent, local journalism isn't cheap, but with your support we can keep delivering it. Donate now.