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Democrats Say Black Voters Are Being Disenfranchised In The Special Election To Replace Katie Hill In Congress

Signs urge physical distancing and COVID-19 safety measures at a Palmdale vote center. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)
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It would be hard to overstate how much things have changed since Katie Hill, a popular Democratic Congresswoman, left public office just 10 months into her term.

So it is in the middle of a pandemic that voters in the 25th congressional district in North L.A and eastern Ventura County must cast a ballot by next Tuesday, May 12 to choose her replacement.

And exactly how people are able to vote is now an issue of concern for Democrats who are hoping to hold on to the seat that was part of a blue wave in Southern California in 2018. Local Democrats say the lack of in-person vote centers in the city of Lancaster threatens to hurt African American turnout there.

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Concerns about safety and COVID-19 affecting voter access led Governor Gavin Newsom to issue an executive order for special elections, including a chance for every voter to vote by mail. Ballots have now been sent out.

The Governor also "authorized, and encouraged" counties to provide in-person voting opportunities. The first three L.A. County vote centers -- out of a total of nine planned -- opened up over the weekend in the cities of Palmdale, Littlerock and Valencia.


However, no vote centers are planned for Lancaster, a high desert city which boasts one of the most racially diverse populations in the district, including a large African American community. According to the 2018 Census American Community Survey, black residents make up about 7% of the 25th congressional district, while nearly 22% of Lancaster residents are black.

Several centers are slated for the neighboring city of Palmdale [check the county's map of vote center locations].

"We find it concerning," said Kunal Atit, a spokesperson for Democratic candidate Christy Smith in a statement. "[We] call upon the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk to review and rectify this oversight."

Mark J. Gonzalez, who chairs the L.A. County Democratic Party, agreed.

"Lancaster is the single most diverse part of the district, and yet the nearest voting center is nine miles away," he said. "Registrar Logan's voting center placement decisions need to be consistent with our state's focus on ensuring that every voter has the opportunity to exercise their right to vote... especially in communities of color."


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The L.A. County Registrar's office said in an email it's offering in-person vote centers "throughout the District" and "within the guidelines of the public health orders and the Governor's Executive Order in relation to conducting elections and COVID-19."

The county included vote center locations with each mail-in ballot and the election materials sent to every voter.

"That information has been widely available to all voters in the District," said Registrar-Recorder spokesperson Michael Sanchez via email.


Campaigns for Democrat Christy Smith and Republican Mike Garcia are urging their supporters to return vote-by-mail ballots in this hotly contested race -- either by mail or at one of the 22 in-person drop boxes located in L.A. County (there are three drop boxes in Lancaster).

There is some evidence that an all-mail election could disadvantage diverse parts of the electorate.

Election officials reject African American, Latino, Asian and other minority voters' mail-in ballots at a higher rate than white voters, according to a 2018 ACLU/University of Florida study. And voters of color are also less likely to get their ballots "cured" -- fixed and accepted -- after a signature mismatch is flagged, according to the study.

In the midst of COVID-19 health concerns, election officials should encourage voters to mail-in ballots, said Rep. Gregory Meeks, chair of the political arm of the Congressional Black Caucus. But many African American voters simply trust physical polling locations more.

"We know the long history of the African American community that fought for the right to vote," Meeks said. "They want to make sure their vote counts. Because they take it very seriously."

"This probably will be a very close election, and what could make the difference is the turnout of African Americans," Meeks added.


"This is something the county should fix immediately," said Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, a Republican and supporter of GOP candidate Mike Garcia. "There should not be even the appearance of affecting the outcome by limiting the ability to vote."

"I want Mike to win, I think he'd be a better congressman, but I don't want to 'jimmy' the election," Parris said.

The Smith campaign and the County's Democratic Party also accused the Registrar of overseeing a wider pattern of voting obstacles in the region.

"This unfortunately mirrors voting access issues that occurred in the primary in the Antelope Valley, which resulted in voter confusion and ultimately low turnout," Atit said.

California voters have plenty of reasons to prefer to vote in person: if they lost their absentee ballot, need disability or language accommodations, want to change their party registration, or if they're new to the district or just turned 18 -- the state allows people to register to vote in person up to and including the day of an election.


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