On May 12, Los Angeles County voters will decide who replaces former Rep. Katie Hill for her remaining term in Congress. Despite countywide “stay at home” orders spurred by the coronavirus outbreak, nine polling places will be available for residents to register and cast their ballots in person.
Meanwhile, Riverside County plans its own May 12 special election in the 28th Senate District, but it will be mail-only with no in-person balloting.
And Orange County will stage a May 19 City Council recall election in Santa Ana. Initially, the registrar positioned it as a mostly mail vote. But since then, citing “risks to public health,” the Board of Supervisors decreed a mail-only election, canceling early in-person voting options that were set to begin on May 9.
All three elections were decreed under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s March 20 executive order. Newsom’s office acknowledges the pandemic risk at polling stations and required that mail-in ballots be sent to all registered voters. But he also “authorized and encouraged” elections officials to give voters in-person options, if they can be made safe.
Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the state’s election czar, backs the governor’s decree. “I would argue that voting is an essential activity,” he said.
But why the varied approaches to in-person voting?
In L.A. County, elections officials say they don’t have a choice. It’s one of 15 counties in California mandated under the Legislature-approved Voter’s Choice Act to offer early-voting options by mail and by polling place. Those options include enabling voters to cast ballots in person at the voting center of their choice.
”It’s not so much that we’re determined to have it in person,” L.A. County Registrar spokesman Mike Sanchez. “It’s more so that we’re obliged to have that in-person experience. We’re essentially using them as a last-case scenario for people.”
The polling centers can allow voters to respond to a mistake on their ballot or to register last-minute or address other potential issues, Sanchez said. But the county will primarily promote the mail vote, he added.
In previous elections, mail ballots were not sent to all L.A. County voters, only to those who requested them. Three million of L.A. County’s 5.5 million registered voters were considered permanent vote-by-mail voters during the March 3 primary.
But after the county experienced an array of problems during the March primary vote — from a lawsuit over the on-screen ballot format to voting centers that failed to open on time because of equipment and training issues to long lines and long waits at the polls on election — Padilla ordered changes.
“I am calling on Los Angeles County to mail every registered voter a ballot for the Nov. 3, 2020, General Election, in addition to improving the performance of vote centers,” he said in a terse letter to L.A. County Registrar Dean Logan. Those ballots have already been mailed to voters eligible in the May vote.
“I think the difference you might see, is that L.A. County’s voters in the last election didn’t all get vote-by-mail ballots,” said Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley, adding that voters in his county have become more accustomed to all-mail-ballot elections in the recent past. “(L.A. County) voters are used to an in-person options.”
In Orange County, Santa Ana voters will decide whether or not to recall Councilwoman Cecilia Iglesias.
Iglesias, elected to the council in 2018, described the recall move as a power play on the part of Gerry Serrano, head of the Santa Ana Police Officers Association, sparked by her opposition to a police pay raise. “This is not about a contract vote over a year ago, rather (that) she is unfit and her behavior illicit,” wrote Serrano, who described Iglesias as “ruthless and unethical.”
All eligible voters were mailed a ballot. They can return them by mail or bring to any of nine drop-off locations. They can also register to vote up until election day at the county registrar’s office in Santa Ana.
In Riverside County, Registrar of Voters Rebecca Spencer requested an all vote-by-mail election in the 28th Senate District representing southwest Riverside County, the Coachella Valley and Blythe. Because no one among five candidates got a simple majority of the vote on March 3, a May 12 runoff will decide who serves the remainder of former state Sen. Jeff Stone’s term, which expires in 2022, in the 28th Senate District.
Though Newsom’s order encouraged the option of in-person voting, Riverside County opted for the mail votes in the special election, which is scattered across a wide geographic region and includes from distant points on the map.
Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, faces Democrat Elizabeth Romero in the special election. There are 479,497 voters registered in the district
In previous elections, the county had already relied to a large extent on mail-in ballots, with roughly 70% of all voters having permanent vote-by-mail status as of the November 2018 general election.
In LA and Orange counties, officials assure the election will be safe at voting centers, which will be open for 10 days, up until polls close at 8 p.m. on election day.
Officials said they are required by state law to offer these “safe, in-person options”:
- Polling stations will be at least six feet apart
- Election workers will wear protective gloves and masks
- Surfaces and ballot marking devices will be wiped down after every voter
- And the number of voters in areas will be limited.
Perez and Padilla said that the combination of mail and early voting actually ensures a safe election. Perez pointed to the March 17 primary in Arizona as an election, which operated the same way, that reported a robust turnout, despite fears of coronavirus.
“It is absolutely appropriate that people be allowed to vote,” said Barbara Ferrer, L.A. County’s public health director. “Voting will happen in as safe a manner as possible.”
“That’s freedom,” agreed Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a professor of public policy communication at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy. “You can’t mandate that no one show up at a polling place. You just can’t. But you can certainly let voters have the choice.”
In LA County, May’s vote features a particularly politically important race and it’s already proven itself fascinating. The district — which includes 420,928 voters and spans parts of L.A. and Ventura Counties — has been without a representative since October.
Voters will choose between Democrat Christy Smith and Republican Mike Garcia. Their parties have poured millions of dollars into the race, which has turned into a battle of virtual campaign town halls, TV ads, and Twitter spats. Not surprisingly, the campaign rhetoric is steeped in COVID.
When scandal-scarred Hill resigned in October, Smith, a longtime Santa Clarita resident, was quick to compete for the seat in the “swing suburb” where many police and firefighters live.
A former member of the Newhall school board and current state assemblywoman, has doubled down on the need for affordable, accessible healthcare as the pandemic has gripped the region. Smith’s campaign and Democrats are slamming Republicans for not doing enough to protect access to health coverage. And they’ve associated Garcia’s platform to President Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic.
Garcia, a former Navy pilot and a Raytheon business executive, has pushed back at Smith over decisions she made as a school board member, and hammered at familiar pre-pandemic themes like cutting taxes, faith, patriotism, campaign finance and what they was Smith’s support of Medicare for All. But he’s also been calling her out on her response to the pandemic as an assemblywoman.
Mind you, when this election ends, the battle won’t be over. This vote is just for the right to represent the district until January.
In November the pair will square off anew for a fresh two-year term in Congress.