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Los Angeles voters picked different candidates for the same job

Los Angeles voters picked different candidates for the same job
The ballot for one of two elections for the 32nd Senate District. Between the two ballots, early returns show different vote totals for the same candidates. (Los Angeles County ballot)

Voters in California’s 32nd Senate District faced something quite rare in politics last Tuesday: Two elections for the same job. But did they know it was the same job?

The results so far are, to put it bluntly, baffling. And they serve as a reminder that the electoral system depends on voters making careful selections.

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To understand what’s going on in this Senate district centered around the Gateway Cities region of Los Angeles County including Norwalk and Whittier, let’s start with the political turmoil. The district used to be represented by Democrat Tony Mendoza, whose term in office would have ended this fall.

Mendoza abruptly resigned in February after allegations of sexual harassment, charges he disputed even as the Senate was prepared to vote to expel him. That triggered a special election to fill the remaining months in Mendoza’s current term. And it happened so late that it ended up on the June 5 primary ballot — the same ballot where voters considered candidates for a new four-year term in the Senate.

So one seat in the Senate, two separate terms, and thus two separate elections on the same day. Eleven candidates — nine Democrats and two Republicans — ran in both races, largely believing the winner of the special election would be able to go to Sacramento early and get a jump on the work.

But it’s not working out that way according to returns through the end of Friday: The vote totals in the two Senate District 32 races are quite different.

Both the special and regular elections show Republican businesswoman Rita Topalian in first place, while different Democrats came in second. Again, though, these are the exact same candidates for the exact same job.

Topalian got almost 22,000 votes in both races. In the special election, Democrat Vanessa Delgado is in second place. But in the normal primary, she was third, trailing Democrat Bob Archuleta by almost 2,000 votes.

The most likely explanation is that the names were in a different order in each race because state law treats these as two separate elections. Ballot order is randomized in every race, as research shows a slight advantage for names at the top or bottom of a list.

Archuleta, the mayor of Pico Rivera, was at the top of the ballot for the full-term Senate election and leads all Democrats. But on the special election list, he was listed seventh and currently is in fourth place.

Mendoza, unmoved by calls to step aside, decided to run in both races. He was listed at the top of the ballot for the special election and has more votes in that race — more than 12,000 — than in the regular primary, with fewer than 9,000.

Perhaps the ballot design could have been more clear about things, but it does label both races as for the 32nd Senate District. And so some blame must rest with voters if they didn’t realize the same names were in both races — just in a different order.

Of course, people could have just stopped voting. The early vote suggests fewer people cast ballots in the special election, which came next on the ballot.

If these numbers hold among Democrats — who have a 27-point registration advantage in the district and are highly likely to win each race — we’re in for a very strange moment in time. Because Topalian didn’t win a majority of votes, an Aug. 2 runoff looks likely for the election to fill Mendoza’s remaining term, where the winner would serve only for about three weeks before the Legislature adjourns for the year on Aug. 31. But a different Democrat on the November ballot for the new term in office could mean a completely different senator would serve the next four years.

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