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Vote by mail ballots for the 34th Congressional District runoff outpacing primary

File photo: A stack of vote-by-mail ballots sit on a table prior to being sorted at the San Francisco Department of Elections January 24, 2008 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
File photo: Californians are increasingly using vote by mail ballots in national, state and local elections.

Many are watching next week's special 34th Congressional District election in Los Angeles, not just as one of the few congressional races since President Trump's election but because it's serving as a window into the future of voting in California. 

Two candidates are competing in the Tuesday district runoff to fill the seat once held by Xavier Becerra, now state attorney general. Both are Democrats, as is Becerra, so the race won't gain the party any added advantage in its effort to win back control of the U.S. House. 

But the election is drawing interest as voters increasingly opt to vote by mail instead of trekking to their neighborhood polling places.

Back in 1962, according to the California Secretary of State's numbers, just 2.63 percent of the general election votes cast were mail ballots. Fast forward to the 34th district's primary in April, and about half of all voters cast ballots by mail. 

Los Angeles County election officials began accepting mail ballots for the district's general election in early May. So far, the number of vote by mail ballots returned is exceeding that of the primary. 

"We're well ahead of pace," said Paul Mitchell, vice president of the bipartisan voter data firm Political Data, who has been monitoring the early vote by mail returns. "We're seeing a faster rate of return ... so there's people who are pointing to likelihood of higher turnout." 

If so, it would be a notable improvement in voter participation. The primary saw just 14 percent of the 34th district's roughly 300,000 registered voters cast ballots in the race. 

Mitchell cautioned that the quicker pace of returned ballots could also indicate voters in the primary simply waited longer to make a decision due to the crowded candidate field. In April, 23 candidates were on the ballot.

More will become clear on Tuesday night, when the first vote count takes place. 

Mitchell said his research shows Korean Americans are participating in especially strong numbers — a trend that mirrored what occurred during the primary.

Candidate Robert Ahn's family immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea and his campaign has focused on Asian-American communities in Los Angeles like Koreatown. If he wins, he would be the first Korean American in Congress in two decades.

His opponent, state Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, has family roots in Mexico. He holds an advantage in the heavily Latino district and has the backing of Becerra.

But Mitchell notes: "Currently, Koreans who are only 6 percent of the electorate are a larger share of the votes cast than Latinos who are half the electorate." 

In the primary, Gomez lead the field with 25.3 percent of the vote; Ahn came in second, capturing 22.3 percent of the ballots cast.

Mitchell said voter turnout has been lackluster across California since Trump was elected, although many expected interest in voting would surge in the state carried solidly by the president's general election opponent, Hillary Clinton.

"So far, we see really low turnout in a lot of the elections that have been happening, despite the fact that voters in polls are saying that they're hyper-engaged and active and going to protests and watching the news — all the things that are generally indicators of higher turnout," he said.  

Despite the Democrats' hope to turn current political activism into mid-term victories, voting history shows there are no guarantees, especially if the party leans on young voters and minorities.

A recent Pew Research Center report suggests millennials, having surpassed Baby Boomers in sheer numbers, still register the lowest turnout of any age group. And a Public Policy Institute of California study in 2016 showed minority voters in the state cast ballots far below their representation in the population.

Latinos, for example, comprise 34 percent of the adult population but only 18 percent of likely voters, while Asian Americans make up 15 percent of adults and just 12 percent of likely voters.

Early, in-person voting in the 34th election will be held this weekend at three locations. More information on the location of polling places is available on the Los Angeles County elections website.