Is This Ballot Responsible for Patty Lopez's Bizarre Upset Over Raul Bocanegra?

Was rising Democratic star Raul Bocanegra, left, undone by a weird ballot that favored obscure Patty Lopez?
Was rising Democratic star Raul Bocanegra, left, undone by a weird ballot that favored obscure Patty Lopez?

UPDATE: Final tallies were released moments ago showing Patty Lopez has officially defeated Raul Bocanegra. Shortly after that, Bocanegra announced he will not seek a recount and conceded the race, See below.

The provisional ballots are still being counted (no rush guys, seriously), but it sure looks like unknown Patty Lopez is going to defeat powerful incumbent State Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra. She's sitting on a 419 vote advantage, about one percent ahead of Bocanegra

Barring an enormous cache of Bocanegra votes hiding under a desk or a dramatic recount by the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters, Lopez is going to Sacramento. 

It's easily the political upset of the year in California — Bocanegra, by all accounts California's Assembly Speaker-in-waiting, every inch the Democratic Party establishment figure, upset by Lopez, a mild-mannered LAUSD employee and political nobody born in Michoacan, Mexico, for whom English is a second language (she speaks with a heavy accent). 

"It’s the Latino version of Mr. Smith goes to Washington," says Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo. "Ms. Lopez goes to Sacramento. It’s the Univision version."

Patty Lopez protests an effort by Hollywood's Media District businesses to restrict feeding the homeless.
Patty Lopez protests an effort by Hollywood's Media District businesses to restrict feeding the homeless.
Patty Lopez campaign

Everyone seems to have a different explanation for just what happened here.

In Los Angeles County and much of California, incumbents hardly ever lose, especially not to people the voters have never heard of — unless, as the saying goes, the incumbent is "caught with a dead girl or a live boy."

Bocanegra finished nearly 40 points ahead of fellow Democrat Lopez in the June 3 primary. That's the typical mauling of anyone who runs a campaign from their kitchen table.

He was so certain of his victory that Bocanegra spent only $15,000 on campaign literature promoting himself to voters during the runoff against her — a pittance in L.A. elections.

Instead, he did as all good Democratic Party up-and-comers do — Bocanegra spent his considerable war chest helping to get his political allies elected, in order to in turn ensure his fellow Democrats'  loyalty to him when he runs for Assembly Speaker.

That powerful post, Speaker, is awarded by legislators to the best leader among them (and the person who gave them cash to help them get elected). It's a you scratch my back, I'll give you a hundred grand type of thing.

Lopez, meanwhile, didn't file a single campaign finance report until after the election, and it's unclear how much money, if any, she raised and spent to get her name out to East Valley voters in the district that takes in gentrifying North Hollywood, working-class Pacoima, middle class Mission Hills and horsey Sunland-Tujunga.

Trujillo points out that this is yet another upset in the East San Fernando Valley, coming hot on the heals of two other upsets in the same area: Monica Ratliff's shocking win over establishment candidate (but political neophyte) Antonio Sanchez in the L.A. Unified School Board race in 2013, and Nury Martinez's come-from-behind victory over Cindy Montanez for L.A. City Council. 

Why are elections in the East Valley looking more and more like a coin flip? Are voters there beginning to turn against the perceived power structure? Does low turnout help make outcomes more random?

It's possible that Republican voters in the East Valley helped Lopez, by consciously deciding to unseat a Democratic incumbent, Bocanegra, in favor of the lesser evil, a Democratic newbie. And while there aren't many GOP voters in the East Valley, this was a year when some Dems stayed home and Republicans turned out.

But there's another, far more surreal reason for Lopez's victory: the ballot.

Below is the page of the ballot that voters living in the 39th Assembly District saw when voting for Lopez or Bocanegra. (Click the image to enlarge):

Is This Ballot Responsible for Patty Lopez's Bizarre Upset Over Raul Bocanegra?

Notice how the first five races on the page are all Democrat vs. Republican races, and they all have the Democratic candidate listed above the Republican.

This is a bizarre coincidence – candidate ballot order is assigned randomly (at least it's supposed to be) and Democrats do not get to be automatically listed above Republicans.

Now, look at the Bocanegra vs. Lopez race, at the bottom of the above page. It's one of the few Democrat vs. Democrat races on the ballot, under California's new voting system in which the top-two winners from the primary, even if they're from the same party, face off in the fall.

And who's listed in the first position in the race for AD 39, the position which up to this point on the ballot was consistently but inadvertently given to the Democrat, with the Republican continually listed in second position?

Patty Lopez is in the first spot.

This suggests that a good number of voters in the East Valley who were voting straight Democrat — and not really aware of specific candidates — may have automatically filled in the first bubble, for Lopez. And it seems likely that these voters did not notice it was a Dem-on-Dem race hiding in the middle of the ballot.

After all, same-party runoffs are still a relatively new phenomenon in California, which began holding "open primaries" (allowing voters to vote for candidates of any party in the primary, therefore creating the possibility of general election races pitting two candidates from the same party against each other) in 2011.

This oddity in the Assembly District 39 race ballot layout was first pointed out by Political Data's Paul Mitchell (not the hairdresser), one of the top election data experts in California.

Says Mitchell, "For decades, it's been there’s Democrats and Republicans. You just go down the row. The tenth race, out of nowhere, there's two Democrats on the ballot. How many voters would have noticed that the tenth race is different than ninth?"

Mitchell compares this ballot to the infamous butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, Florida, in 2000, where thousands of voters were supposedly left confused by the placement of candidates on different pages of the ballot, and mistakenly voted for the colorful and bombastic conservative Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore. 

"In my opinion, there was a base of voters that were always going to vote against Bocanegra," says Mitchell. But he says of the roughly 55 percent who he expected to vote for Bocanegra, giving him a comfortable 10 point victory, if not higher, "I think a good number of them were confused. This result, while it’s a valid election result, isn’t exactly representative of what would been the informed voter intent."

Well, if you can call it informed when straight-line voters mark off all the candidates of one party, sometimes having no knowledge of the person they're choosing.

Raul Bocanegra's chief of staff agrees that the ballot was probably a factor. 

"This is an example of a political perfect storm," he said. "I think there are a variety of factors that led it to being such a close election. The order of names is certainly one of the factors. If you look at elections throughout the state, if it was Dem on Dem, the person who’s name was on top did better than you would expect."

Patty Lopez, meanwhile, tells L.A. Weekly the ballot theory was "just a rumor."

The voters, she says, "should know more about elected officials, with Mr. Bocanegra. They should recognize him."

It's hard to argue with that.

Patty Lopez and friend.
Patty Lopez and friend.
Patty Lopez campaign

UPDATED Nov. 24 at 3:07 p.m.:
Lopez beat Bocanegra by 467 votes, according to a final count by the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters. Regina Ip, of the registrar's office, said, "That should be the final count we have" and although the number will be legally certified in early December, "we don't expect it to change."

The raw numbers: Lopez 22,750 votes or 50.52 percent. Bocanegra 22,283 votes of 49.48 percent. 

UPDATED Nov. 24 at 3:33 p.m.:
Raul Bocanegra has released the following statement:

“While the vote tally is incredibly close, it is clear that my opponent will be victorious by the narrowest of margins. Although many residents and community leaders throughout the 39th Assembly District have urged me to undertake a recount, I do not want to put the state - and particularly the residents of the Northeast San Fernando Valley - through such a costly and time-consuming process.

It has truly been an honor to serve the people of the 39th Assembly District. As the son of a working-class immigrant family, my mother was a teachers aide and my father was a gardener who came to America searching out the American Dream, my parents instilled in my three siblings and I the belief that if you got a good education, work hard and play by the rules you were going to succeed. My service in the Assembly was the manifestation of their hard work and I will forever be grateful to them."  

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