Just when it seemed the state Senate race in the San Fernando Valley couldn't get tighter, election officials announced Friday that City Councilman Richard Alarcon's lead over former Assemblyman Richard Katz had shrunk to seven votes.
After a final batch of 350 absentee and provisional ballots was counted, Alarcon had 38,489 votes, or 40.90%, compared with 38,482 votes, or 40.89%, for Katz, a difference of only .01%.
But the outcome is still uncertain because election officials say 80 to 100 write-in ballots from the 20th Senate District remain to be counted. Also, there are about 1,000 uncounted provisional ballots throughout the county that may contain a few misplaced ballots from the 20th Senate District, officials said. All the remaining ballots will be counted Tuesday.
In the past 94 years, only five legislative races in California have been decided by a margin of six votes or fewer.
The margin has been so slim during the count of absentee and provisional ballots over the past week that neither candidate has claimed victory or even suggested that victory is near.
Instead, they predicted the winner will only be determined by a recount.
"I'm certainly not taking seven votes and declaring victory," Alarcon said. "Whichever way it goes there will definitely be a recount."
The candidate requesting the recount pays for the recount, which can take up to a week and cost between $35,000 and $40,000. The candidate is reimbursed if the election's outcome is changed by the recount.
"At this point it's mostly about finding out who pays for the recount," Katz said.
A recount can only be requested in writing within five days of the certification of the results by the county Board of Supervisors, scheduled for June 30.
But even after a recount is completed, the losing candidate can still challenge the results in court by questioning the verification process or the admittance of questionable ballots.
"When it gets this close, it gets wrapped up by lawyers and recount specialists," Allan Hoffenblum, a veteran political consultant, said. "It could become a mess."
According to election experts, the county's ballot-counting process is so precise that a recount rarely changes the outcome. To check accuracy, the registrar's office routinely counts by hand the ballots from 1% of the precincts countywide. That process has nearly been completed for this race. Two precincts in the 20th Senate District have been included in that accuracy test and, so far, Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack said it has not changed the vote count.
After the polls closed last week, Alarcon held a 791-vote lead. But the margin has narrowed incrementally with each biweekly tally of absentee and provisional ballots.
Katz is hoping the trend will continue until he holds the lead.
"I'm going to the Dodger game tonight and I'm going to the registrar-recorder's office tomorrow and help find more ballots, because the more we find, the better for me," he said.
The close race is nothing new for Alarcon. In 1993, when he first ran for the City Council, he held a 167-vote lead over candidate Lyle Hall after the polls closed. But his lead widened to 234 votes after absentee and provisional ballots were counted.
"Not having run for office, I was extremely tense," he said. "My stomach was tied in knots."
Alarcon concedes he is still antsy about the ballot count but is able to relax between each twice-a-week election update.
"I can go off and shoot a round of golf and forget about it," he said.
Since the polls closed last week, election officials have counted 11,251 absentee and provisional ballots from the 20th Senate District. Provisional ballots are cast by voters whose names do not appear on the rolls but are accepted pending verification.
What remains to be counted are 80 to 100 absentee ballots from the 20th Senate District on which voters printed the names of write-in candidates for other races. Since the closing of the polls, those ballots have been set aside so election officials could verify that the printed names corresponded with one of the 27 certified write-in candidates in the county.
Lawyers for both candidates have camped out at the elections division of the registrar's office to watch over the tally.
That caused some tension earlier this week when Alarcon's attorney, Fred Woocher, wrote to McCormack, accusing Katz representatives of discriminating against Latinos by challenging the absentee ballots of voters with Spanish surnames.
Katz dismissed the accusation and McCormack responded with a tersely worded letter, saying race and ethnicity do not influence which ballots are counted.
In a related matter, a group circulating a petition calling for a study of political secession by the San Fernando Valley said it has uncovered hundreds of voters in the 20th Senate District with dual voter identification numbers. Walter Prince, a member of Valley VOTE, said he uncovered the dual numbers while reviewing voter information purchased from the registrar-recorder for use in the petition drive.
Using a computer-matching program, Prince said he found more than 1,600 voters in the 20th Senate District who had two voter identification numbers. Most of those voters have slightly different names registered for each identification number, but identical dates of birth and addresses.
McCormack conceded the county's voter rolls, which contain 3.8 million registered voters, contain some dual names and errors. She said the county is about to launch a $3-million upgrade of the election computer system next month to identify most of those problems.
"We do have duplicates on the rolls. When it is brought to our attention, we look into it," she said.
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The Close Ones
If the Richard Alarcon-Richard Katz race for a state Senate seat ends up being settled by 10 votes or fewer, their contest will join a select club. Since 1904, when the state began keeping track, there have been only seven California Legislature elections won by that small a margin. All the previous races occurred between 1904 and 1918.
Year Race Winner Loser Vote Margin 1916 Senate J.R. Thompson (D) Willis Slosson (R) 2 1918 Senate William Shearer (D) Emest Elfendahl (R) 3 1904 Assembly James Slaven (R) George Moore (D) 4 1914 Assembly Ira Kramer (Prog. R) H.C. Bagby (D) 6 1910 Assembly Frank Walker (R) W.J. Welter (D) 6 1918 Assembly S.L. Strother (D) Francis Huebner (R) 10 1904 Assembly S.S. Burge (R) Fred Yokum (D) 10