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Uncounted votes could shift Los Angeles election outcome

March 14, 2009|Phil Willon

Los Angeles City Council candidate Adeena Bleich has torn down the posters and disconnected the phones in her Westside campaign office but has yet to abandon the last speck of hope that, by some miracle, her bid for the 5th District seat may still be alive.

Bleich finished third in the city's March 3 primary with 4,173 votes, trailing the second-place finisher by 1,512. The top two qualify for the May runoff election.

City elections officials, however, still have about 46,000 uncounted ballots that were cast in precincts across Los Angeles. The sizable chunk -- more than one in six ballots -- could alter the outcome of a controversial solar energy measure, known as Measure B, and one race for the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

For Bleich it's a long shot. Ballots counted after preliminary results are announced rarely change the outcome by more than a percentage point or two, and probably only a sliver of the uncounted ballots are from Council District 5. Bleich finished 5.7 percentage points behind second-place finisher Paul Koretz.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, March 18, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 88 words Type of Material: Correction
Recount cost: An article in Saturday's Section A about 46,000 ballots that remain uncounted from the March 3 primary in Los Angeles said that candidates requesting a manual recount are required to pay a deposit of $2,171 per precinct plus 33 cents for each ballot, and that requesting a citywide recount in the mayoral race would cost more than $3 million. The city requires just one deposit of $2,171 plus 33 cents for each ballot. Therefore, requesting a recount in the mayoral election would cost less than $100,000.

"Is it possible? Sure . . . but I'm not Dorothy looking over the rainbow," Bleich said.

However, Measure B, which was backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and local labor organizations, trails by less than 1%. The race for the District 6 school board seat, between Nury Martinez and Louis Pugliese, is almost as close.

The outcome of those contests is expected to be decided Thursday, when the last uncounted votes are tallied in a cavernous room next to the Los Angeles River.

The uncounted votes include about 24,000 mail-in ballots that arrived on election day or were dropped off at polling stations; 10,000 ballots that were damaged or had extraneous markings; and 12,000 provisional ballots -- those cast by voters whose names were not on registration rolls at precincts.

The public has the right to observe the process, though few people have dropped by in the last week despite the urgings of L.A. bloggers and talk radio hosts.

Mayoral candidate Walter Moore, who trails Villaraigosa by more than 67,000 votes but notes that it's still "mathematically possible" to force a runoff, called for vigilante coverage by the media to ensure that ballots "don't grow legs and wander into a shredder."

Arleen Taylor, chief of the city's elections division, said she "can't imagine" why anyone would believe some sort of conspiracy is afoot. If they request, candidates and other members of the public are permitted to stand over the shoulders of elections workers as they inspect the ballots.

Proponents of Measure B expressed confidence in how the uncounted ballots are being tallied.

"We still believe in the electoral process and encourage the clerk's office to swiftly and accurately count those votes so the city and its leaders can move forward," said Sarah Leonard, spokeswoman for the Yes on Measure B campaign.

Former Daily News of Los Angeles editor Ron Kaye, now a blogger and foe of Measure B, said he's confident that Measure B will continue to trail even after the uncounted ballots are tallied. Opposition to the measure didn't pick up steam until two weeks before the March 3 vote, and he expects most of the uncounted mail-in ballots to reflect that trend.

"On election day we won," Kaye said.

Measure B currently trails by 1,322 votes citywide.

Teams of election workers first verify that the ballots were cast by registered voters through the arduous process of comparing the name, address and voter signature on each envelope to those on official Los Angeles County registration records. They also make sure the voter didn't cast more than one ballot in the election.

Once that information is confirmed, the envelopes are unsealed and the ballots removed. Separate teams of workers inspect each ballot and fish out the "snags" -- ballots that are damaged or have smudges, stray markings or improperly filled-in bubbles. If possible, the snags are repaired; if not, their votes are transferred to fresh ballots by yet another team of workers.

All the ballots that pass muster will be counted at the same time on Thursday.

After the city declares the official results, candidates have five days to request a recount. To do so, however, they must pay a fee. The price of a manual recount is $2,171 per precinct plus 33 cents for each ballot. A citywide recount in the mayoral race, for example, would cost more than $3 million.

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phil.willon@latimes.com

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