This story was published in partnership with HuffPost.
President Donald Trump fumed that a California special congressional election is a “Rigged Election!” because local officials opened an additional polling center to better accommodate voters who do not — or cannot — vote by mail.
Their “votes must not count,” Trump tweeted.
But without the additional vote center, residents of the ethnically diverse California city of Lancaster would have had to travel, on average, roughly twice as far as voters elsewhere in the district, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of in-person vote center locations and voter file data provided by L2, a national nonpartisan data provider.
California’s 25th District congressional election is being conducted primarily by mail, but state law requires in-person voting options. Adding the vote center, which Los Angeles County election officials announced on Friday at the behest of Lancaster’s Republican mayor, reduced the travel distance for Lancaster voters closer to that of voters living elsewhere in the district, the Public Integrity analysis found.
The spat over a single in-person voting center in a special election being conducted primarily by mail anyway is a small window into a larger war over voting that’s raging ahead of the November general election. Republicans and Democrats are vying to shape how people cast their ballots while exchanging explosive charges of voter fraud, election tampering and disenfranchisement of minority voters.
“I didn’t know this thing was going to blow up the way it did,” said Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris in an interview Tuesday, adding that he had spoken off the cuff when requesting the vote center after being told by a reporter that the neighboring city of Palmdale had them — and Lancaster did not.
“I just kneejerked it,” Parris said.
Afterward, Parris explained, Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan called him and offered to add a vote center in Lancaster, a city of about 160,000, a chunk of which falls in the 25th District. Drexel Heard II, executive director of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, said Democrats had also separately advocated for an additional vote center in Lancaster, where, he pointed out, many voters are people of color.
Both Heard and Parris said they were initially unaware of the other’s request.
Prior to the addition of a vote center at the National Soccer Center, the nearest in-person location for most residents in Lancaster was the Pampered Pooch Pet Hotel or the Palmdale Elk’s Lodge — both in the neighboring city of Palmdale.
“Our argument was not that we are expecting people to run to the voting centers,” Heard said. “But we did want to make sure that people had their voting center accessible to them.”
Parris, a lawyer who has worked on Voting Rights Act cases in California, said the incident has him thinking about how decisions such as the location of vote centers could be used to influence the outcome of an election. He said Republicans objecting have a legitimate point, even though he stressed he expects few voters to cast ballots in person. Election officials need to carefully consider how such decisions are made before November, he said.
“We seem to be becoming a society that sees a conspiracy around every corner, and that’s really not what happened here,” Parris said.
Public Integrity’s analysis estimates the Lancaster vote center will be the closest vote center for roughly 40 percent of African-American voters in the congressional district.
Election officials sent every registered voter a mail-in ballot and expected most voters participating in the election to use them rather than vote in person. About one voter out of every three has returned a mail ballot, ballot tracking data shows.
Under California law, election officials are required to offer safe, in-person voting options for those who need or choose them, such as voters with disabilities, those who need language help, or those taking advantage of same-day registration.
The congressional district includes parts of northern Los Angeles County and part of Ventura County. In Los Angeles County, officials had planned to offer in-person voting at nine vote centers available to any voter in the county. The southern portion of Lancaster is in the district.
Two candidates, Democratic state assemblywoman Christy Smith and Republican businessman Mike Garcia, are seeking to replace former Rep. Katie Hill, a Democrat who resigned last fall, leaving the seat vacant.
Partial results Wednesday morning showed Garcia with a lead. The two will face off again in November, seeking election for a full term. Both have weighed in on Twitter about the vote center fracas.
In response to a request for comment, Michael Sanchez, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder’s office, said his office could not confirm the Public Integrity analysis. But given social distancing orders related to the pandemic, he said his office had looked for locations with large exterior lots that could safely serve as vote centers.
“We geographically placed vote centers throughout Congressional District 25 that could accommodate the largest eligible voting population,” Sanchez said in an email, also noting that the district covers a large geographic area.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has limited a lot of activity and options, but we have demonstrated that we can provide safe and secure in-person voting options for those who need or choose them,” he said.
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