34th congressional primary's final vote count shows low turnout for high cost election

Democrats Jimmy Gomez, left, and Robert Ahn, right, were the clear front-runners following the special election for the 34th Congressional District on April 4.
Democrats Jimmy Gomez, left, and Robert Ahn, right, were the clear front-runners following the special election for the 34th Congressional District on April 4.
Courtesy of Jimmy Gomez for Congress and Susanica Tam for KPCC

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Election officials on Tuesday finished the vote count for last week's 34th Congressional District special election, confirming the results from early balloting and verifying that few voters participated.

Final numbers show only about 14 percent of eligible voters participated in the primary election. State Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez and Robert Ahn, a former Los Angeles city planning commissioner, will advance to the June 6 runoff, as was signaled in earlier results.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra formerly held the congressional seat that covers the area from Eagle Rock to Boyle Heights. The timing of Becerra's resignation from the seat triggered the special election, which county officials estimated cost $1,371,000.

A few more ballots await required signatures from voters and will be counted if the required forms are received by tomorrow, according to the Los Angeles County elections office. But based on the 42,902 ballots counted, the election cost $31.96 per primary vote. 

"In terms of return on investment, they’re an important part of our Democratic process, but they’re very, very costly," said Mindy Romero, University of California, Davis, director of the California Civic Engagement Project, referring to the special elections. 

The projected cost of the June runoff has not yet been released. 

Consolidating the election with local balloting in March would have been cheaper. But the state's complicated web of election laws left Gov. Jerry Brown with no option but to schedule a special election for the congressional seat based on the timing of Becerra's resignation on Jan. 24. 

The laws require certain number of days pass between election steps, such as filing nomination papers and sending out ballots to military and overseas voters. Those requirements meant the congressional seat election had to be scheduled on its own.

Results released Tuesday show Gomez, the front-runner, received 25.36 percent of votes processed. Ahn, a first-time candidate, finished the race with 22.25 percent support. Both candidates are sons of immigrants. Gomez' family is from Mexico and Ahn's parents immigrated to Los Angeles from South Korea. 

Buoyed by their fundraising and base of support, Ahn and Gomez emerged during the early vote count from a crowded field of 23 candidates. They beat out the third-place finisher Maria Cabildo, who had won the endorsement of the Los Angeles Times, as well as three candidates with ties to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders: Arturo Carmona, Wendy Carrillo and Kenneth Mejia.

Another candidate, Sara Hernandez, lawyer and former Los Angeles Unified teacher, also finished near the top of the pack. 

Ahn's mobilization of Korean American voters proved one factor in the race. Before election day, an analysis by political researcher Paul Mitchell found Korean Americans appeared to be outpacing other district voters in submitting early mail ballots — at a rate of three to one.

In-person, early voting numbers also surged compared to the March local elections. Early district voting at the Koreatown branch of the Los Angeles Public Library totaled 609 voters for April 1 and 2, according to an L.A. County registrar spokesman, a high rate based to the previous month's elections.

Joon Bang, executive director of the L.A.-based Korean American Coalition, said his nonpartisan group has been working on registering voters and mobilizing seniors to participate in elections.

Bang said he thinks participation for the Korean American community transcends the 34th Congressional District contest. "I think what we've seen in the past few years is there's been a groundswell of interest from Korean Americans wanting to be more politically engaged and active," he said. 

Bang added that news of a county error on Korean language sample ballots also helped raise awareness around the election. 

Gomez, however, continues to draw the most endorsements from established Democratic leaders and groups, including from Becerra. He also holds an advantage given the district's demographic makeup: the Census Bureau estimated that 64 percent of the district's population in 2015 was of Hispanic or Latino descent, although historic turnout among such voters has been proportionately low.