This morning, as Vernon holds its first City Council election in 25 years, a judge is expected to decide whether the election should be postponed or be run by county officials amid allegations of potential fraud.
Challengers facing City Council members who have been in office for as long as 50 years are trying to keep that city's officials from counting the ballots.
The industrial town south of downtown Los Angeles, which has fewer than 100 residents, has seen a mysterious 50% surge in its election rolls in recent weeks.
Absentee ballots sent to voters state that they must be returned in prepaid-postage envelopes. But the envelopes the city sent require stamps, prompting fears that some ballots might get lost in the mail.
And the city clerk, who is to count the votes tonight, is the same person who canceled the challengers' voter registration, a move that Los Angeles County and a Los Angeles Superior Court judge later determined to be illegal.
Despite this, Kareem Crayton, an assistant professor and election law expert at USC, said that wresting control of an election from a city, postponing it or overturning the results would be extremely difficult.
"The candidate who wants to challenge an election faces a double-edged sword," Crayton said. "On the one hand the problem is going to be showing that something bad is going to happen. And after the fact ... you have to show enough evidence that the outcome you see is not the one that should have occurred. That has to be persuasive."
Deborah Wright, executive liaison to the Los Angeles County registrar of voters, said it is virtually unheard of for the county to take over an election.
The only time that happened was in 2003, when the county registrar and state election fraud investigators ran a recall election in the scandal-plagued city of South Gate, a few miles south of Vernon. But that required legislative action, Wright said.
Today's hearing takes place a day after a Superior Court judge declined to issue an order giving control of the election to county registrar officials.
The challengers' lawyer, Albert Robles, said there was evidence that the election will be fraudulent and said it could not be fair as long as Vernon City Clerk Bruce Malkenhorst Jr. counted the ballots.
Robles pulled out a ballot envelope and alleged that the way it was sent, and the way the city was asking for it to be mailed, made it likely that balloting would not be secret.
The envelope in which the ballot was sent had a window in the back that showed the ballot number ascribed to each resident voter. There were no instructions to tear out the stub with the identifying ballot number before mailing it back.
Judge David P. Yaffe said he could not find from the documents before him reasons to order the county to take control of the election.
"How do we know [whether the election is fair or not] before we know how it comes out?" asked Yaffe, who last month ordered Vernon to hold the election.
Yaffe said the ultimate decision should be left up to the judge hearing another challenge the candidates have made to the election process. Robles immediately scheduled a hearing in the courtroom of Judge Aurelio Munoz for this morning.
The earlier lawsuit alleges that most of Vernon's voters are "induced" to vote for the city leaders because they depend on them for jobs and cheap housing. The lawsuit also claims that about a dozen of the city's purported residents do not really live in Vernon.
Roy Ulrich, a lawyer and former Vernon property owner who has clashed with the city, said the jump in registered voters probably happened because the city's leadership was suddenly challenged after 25 years.
"There was always a discrepancy between the number of registered voters and the citizens," Ulrich said. "Before, there wasn't a threat to the control of the City Council. Now, I'm sure the city got some of the relatives of [city employees] to register to vote this time around."
Vernon city officials have consistently declined to comment, but they have in the past alleged that the campaign of Don Huff, 41, David Johnson, 24, and Alejandro Lopez, 20, is being orchestrated by former South Gate treasurer Albert Robles (who is not related to the candidates' attorney).
The deposed treasurer is facing a federal prison sentence after being convicted last year on public corruption charges.
Cris Summers, a disbarred attorney and close friend of Robles, secured housing in Vernon for the candidates and their roommates. Summers was criticized for her involvement in the now-defunct South Gate administration run by Robles. She denies the ex-South Gate official's involvement.
On the other side, Malkenhorst's father, Bruce Malkenhorst Sr., is the focus of a criminal investigation by county prosecutors into possible misuse of public funds by city officials.
As part of that investigation, the district attorney's public integrity division is also investigating whether Mayor Leonis Malburg -- the grandson of the town's founder -- actually lives in Vernon.