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Westside Assembly race is a nail-biter

Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom is leading Assemblywoman Betsy Butler by 79 votes in the 50th District. He's interviewing staffers; she's taking her mother to Hawaii.

November 23, 2012|By Jean Merl, Los Angeles Times
  • Orlando Ballesteros, 23, is working at the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder's office in Norwalk. All votes from this month's election must be tallied by Dec. 4.
Orlando Ballesteros, 23, is working at the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder's… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

One contestant in a still-undecided Assembly race has already begun hiring staff "just in case."

His opponent, on the other hand, kept a commitment to go to Hawaii with her mother, on the advice of her political consultant who told her there was "nothing you can do here but wait" until the ballots are counted.

That's how Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom and Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, both Democrats, are coping with the uncertainty of not knowing which has won their contest in California's changed political landscape. Political observers say the state may now have more such close races because of redrawn political maps and a new system that allows members of the same party to compete against each other in fall general election races.

The Butler-Bloom race is among a handful of contests the secretary of state's office considers too close to call more than two weeks after the election, so they must sweat it out until county elections officials can finish counting the hundreds of thousands of eligible ballots that couldn't be tallied on election night.

Counties have until Dec. 4 to finish their work and report to the state the final tallies for 53 congressional, 80 Assembly and 20 state Senate races.

"This is the third time I've been in a close race, so I've got more experience than I'd like to have," Bloom, 59, quipped recently, as he continued to hold a thread-like lead over Butler. He lost his first race for the City Council, in 1998, by around 100 votes and squeaked onto this year's fall ballot in a tight four-way primary.

He's been raising money for election consultants to monitor the post-election day ballot processing and has spent time in Sacramento attending orientation sessions for new lawmakers. Bloom also has been — tentatively — hiring staff for what he hopes will be his Capitol and local offices for the 50th Assembly District.

"The timeline is very short, and if everything holds to expectations," Bloom said, "I need to be prepared to assume office" Dec. 3.

Butler, 49, spent the first couple of weeks after the election tending to business in her old district, in Marina del Rey and the South Bay, before deciding to join her mother this week on their annual trip to Hawaii.

"I advised her to go because there is really nothing she can do here but wait," Parke Skelton, Butler's campaign consultant, said this week.

The Butler campaign, the California Democratic Party and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles), who backed the incumbent, also are sending representatives to keep tabs on the canvassing at the registrar-recorder/county clerk's offices in Norwalk.

But there's little either side can do except watch and wait as scores of county workers painstakingly slog every day — including Thanksgiving and weekends — through the roughly 792,000 ballots left countywide after election night. (No one can say how many remained in the Assembly race; estimates by the campaigns put the number at 15,000 to 40,000.)

Batches of newly processed ballots are tallied every few days and updated results posted on the registrar's website,

By Tuesday a total of about 476,000 ballots had been processed. The latest batch, consisting of about 130,000 ballots, showed Bloom's lead had slipped to just 79 votes, the smallest since he finished election night 212 votes ahead. The current tally is 85,508 for Bloom, 85,429 for Butler. The next update is scheduled for Friday.

Visitors can watch the tallies through a window from the hallway but aren't allowed inside.

Two floors above the computer room, workers sort through the uncounted ballots, which include mail-in votes that arrived before the 8 p.m. election day deadline but not soon enough to be processed for counting that night.

Also being counted are provisional ballots, which were given, for example, to voters who had requested mail ballots but showed up at the polls without them, or whose registration could not be immediately verified or who dropped off their ballots at other precincts. Those must be checked against registration rolls and precinct rosters to be sure no one voted twice.

Other ballots are too damaged or too lightly marked to go through a tabulating machine; each of those is examined and, if valid, "remade" so it can be counted. (The ballots are designed to hide how someone voted to avoid tampering.)

When the counting is done, the losing side can seek a recount but would have to pay for it, with the money refunded only if the outcome changes.

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