Pandemic No Deterrent for LA County Voters in Special Congressional Election

Voters who dropped of mail-in ballots or cast their votes on machines Tuesday in California’s special election for the 25th Congressional District seat did so under social distancing and public health guidelines. (Courthouse News photo / Martín Macias, Jr.)

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (CN) — By midmorning Tuesday during a special election in California’s 25th Congressional District, voters came out to turn in vote-by-mail ballots and cast votes at polling sites across the district, a sign that the Covid-19 outbreak has not completely turned residents away from their civic duty.

The district’s more than 352,000 registered voters decided Republican Mike Garcia, a former U.S. Navy pilot, will fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of Democratic Rep. Katie Hill.

Garcia’s challenger, Democratic Assemblywoman Christy Smith, conceded in a statement Wednesday.

“While it’s critical that we ensure every vote is counted and recorded, we believe that the current tally shows Mike Garcia is the likely victor in the May 12 special election. As such, I’d like to congratulate him,” Smith said.

Garcia will serve the remainder of Hill’s term, which ends in January. But as Smith noted in her statement, the pair will face off again in the November general election.

The high-profile race garnered national attention and seen a swarm of Democratic and Republican heavyweights fire off endorsements and get-out-the-vote messages ahead of the May 12 special election.

The district, which spans parts of Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, has historically voted for moderate Republicans but elected Hill in 2018 and backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

Smith, who represents California’s 38th Assembly District, was backed by a host of labor organizations, progressive voter groups and prominent Democrats such as U.S. Senator Kamala Harris and former President Barack Obama.

Garcia is a relative political novice who has the backing of President Donald Trump and the state GOP.

Both campaigns spent heavily in the race — as well as received hefty financial support from outside groups — as Democrats looked to hold on to the seat and Republicans tried to claim an upset victory.

At polling sites in the cities of Santa Clarita and Castaic, voters said they were confident elections officials had properly assessed the risks of Covid-19 spread.

Castaic resident Sharina Ulloa said in an interview she was happy with California’s response to the outbreak and that it shouldn’t hinder voting access. 

“It’s our civic duty to vote and I think people will take the proper precautions,” Ulloa said. “Voters here just need to realize there isn’t a cure for [Covid-19] and we still need to be careful.”

Ulloa, who dropped off her mail-in ballot at the Castaic Sports Complex vote center, said she backed Smith in the race.

“Anyone endorsed by Trump, we vote the opposite of that,” Ulloa said. “Smith feels more like she’s for the people. She’s not all politics and is trying to understand what things are like for residents.”

Residents Steven Toriello and Shaine Meulmester said they felt it was important to vote for Smith in a swing district and in such a critical race.

At a polling site at College of the Canyons, Santa Clarita resident Gabriel Dow echoed that sentiment, saying he feels the purple district is shifting toward a Democratic majority even if Garcia wins this round.

“If Garcia wins this, it would create more urgency to vote him out in November,” Dow said. 

Toriello and Meulmester said they appreciated the health measures put in place at the polling site.

Sheryl and Butch Cederquist used the new LA County voting machines to cast their vote Tuesday but declined to name the candidate they backed or what issues were important to them.

“We’re conservatives, what can I tell you,” said Sheryl Cederquist. 

Castaic, California, residents Sheryl and Butch Cederquist stand beside an outdoor vote center after casting their ballots in the 25th Congressional District special election. (Courthouse News photo / Martín Macías, Jr.)

In an interview, California Republican Party chair Jessica Millan Patterson said Garcia is a district native who understands Republican voters.

“This is a huge opportunity for us,” said Patterson, who also lives in the district. “Mike García knows this area and knows our values. He’s a refreshing new candidate.”

Patterson blasted state Democratic leaders for what she said are policies that have led to crises in housing, homelessness and education.

“Democrats have had a supermajority in both state houses and have had a hold on the governor’s seat for decades and every one of their policies has led to this,” Patterson said.

The 25th congressional district has also been “shortchanged” by the lack of representation following Hill’s resignation from Congress this past November, Patterson stated.

The Cederquists said they received a mail-in ballot from the county but prefer to vote in person.

“I don’t like using the mail for it,” Butch Cederquist said. “I mean the mail is legit but there’s too much easy fraud.”

The concern about voter fraud is echoed by Trump, who has tweeted unverified photos of discarded ballots and who has claimed without evidence that Democrats are stealing the election.

“Dems are trying to steal the Mike Garcia Congressional Race in California,” Trump tweeted Monday. ”Republicans, get out and VOTE for your terrific candidate, ASAP!”

Among the district’s more than 352,000 registered voters, about 60% — 211,000 — are permanent vote-by-mail voters, according to the LA County Registrar-Recorder.

But following an executive order by California Gov. Gavin Newsom directing elections officials to protect voter access during the outbreak, every voter in the district was sent a mail-in ballot.

Newsom announced Friday the state’s more than 20 million registered voters will receive a mail-in ballot for the Nov. 3 election, a sign that health officials don’t believe it will be safe enough for in-person voting. 

The move comes as LA County leaders announced Tuesday remain-at-home orders will be likely extended through July.

LA County Registrar-Recorder spokesperson Mike Sanchez told Courthouse News no machine or wait time issues had been reported at the county’s seven voting centers as of Tuesday afternoon.

Before Tuesday, the county had received 88,056 mail-in ballots out of 361,472 it mailed out and registered 1,782 votes cast in-person.

Voter turnout data for Tuesday is not available yet, Sanchez said.

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