Voters across Southern California braved the rain Tuesday to cast their ballots in a midterm election that will determine the balance of power in Congress, abortion access and who will lead the nation's second-largest city.
The mood leading up to election day has been one of consternation, with voters grappling with inflation, a scandal that has roiled Los Angeles City Hall and acts of political violence — most recently the assault on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband — that have left them on edge.
After casting her vote at the Elysian Masonic Temple in Los Feliz, Jaclyn Zeccola buckled her 3-year-old son into his car seat, with her red "I Voted" sticker in hand. She said fears about the future prompted her to show up.
"Quite frankly, I’m terrified our world is coming to an end," said Zeccola, 46. "We’re very lucky we live in a liberal area. But I think I’m voting in the hopes that the tide will turn nationally to where we are — where we recognize the rights that are being taken away from so many people."
At the Oakwood Community Center in Venice, the sun peeked out amid cloudy skies as four people waited briefly in line for voting machines. Poll workers said a steady stream of voters had been casting ballots since Monday.
For Venice resident Claudia Soriano, 59, homelessness and crime were key issues. She voted for Rick Caruso for mayor of Los Angeles and Traci Park for Council District 11, a coastal district that includes Pacific Palisades, Brentwood and Marina del Rey, because they'll clean up city streets and make neighborhoods safe, she said.
Soriano, who has lived in Venice for 15 years, said she has found several homeless people in her driveway, and she worries about her two daughters' safety.
"I always vote, but especially this time because we need to fix the situation," she said. "We have so many homeless."
Turnout for the midterm vote — the halfway point of a president's four-year term — is historically much lower than for a presidential election. The sizable shift to vote-by-mail ballots during the pandemic changed how many Californians participate in elections. It also means it can take longer to tally votes than in past years.
As of late Monday, about 5.1 million mail-in ballots had been returned in California. About 51% were from Democrats, 28% from Republicans and 21% from independents or those who identify with another political party, according to election data reviewed by the consulting firm Political Data Intelligence.
In Los Angeles County, vote-by-mail ballots and early voting meant turnout was already over 20% by election day, according to the county registrar's office.
Historically, many Republicans have voted by mail. However, that dynamic changed dramatically in 2020, when then-President Trump and others spread baseless allegations of mail ballot fraud. Now, experts say, Republicans are more likely to vote in person on election day.
A flash flood warning buzzed on many Angelenos' cellphones Tuesday afternoon, but the National Weather Service later said that a glitch caused the alert, which was meant for about 1,500 people in the small Fish fire burn scar near Duarte, to be extended to all of L.A. County.
The L.A. County registrar's office sought to keep voters from being deterred to heading out to polls, noting in a tweet at 4:40 p.m. that officials confirmed the flooding threat was "for a very isolated area."
"Vote Centers and Ballot Drop Boxes remain open until 8PM and voter participation is encouraged," the tweet said.
The Republican Party of Orange County sent out an email Monday recommending members vote as early as possible.
“Election day lines are long and typically one to two hours long. Don’t risk getting caught waiting in the rain to cast your ballot,” the email read.
Outside the Hollywood Lutheran Church, “I Voted” signs were speckled with raindrops and twisted slightly in the wind. An election worker collected rain-drenched signs that warned against electioneering and replaced them with new ones.
Iris Medrano, an election worker lead at the voting center, said they worried it’d be slow because of the rain. But by 9:30 a.m., she estimated that around 30 people had been in to vote. When workers arrived, a couple of voters were already waiting in line in the downpour.
Medrano, 48, has been at the center for the last three days for early voting as well, working 12-hour days. On Monday, she said, a man in his 90s holding a cane and an umbrella came in because he’d lost his mail-in ballot.
“He was so determined,” Medrano said. “It makes all these long hours worth being here."
In an effort to make voting easier, Metro is offering people in L.A. County free bus and train rides to polling places Tuesday.
In Orange County, many voters were eager to cast their ballots in competitive congressional races that could help determine the balance of power in the House. Key races in the region have been tightening in the last week, polls show.
The rain was starting to let up shortly after 9 a.m. when Alfredo Padron cast his vote at the Garden Grove Sports and Recreation Center. He proudly affixed an "I Voted" sticker to the front of his black hoodie from Blizzard Entertainment, the Irvine video game company where he works.
The Cuban American voted for Jay Chen, a congressional candidate challenging GOP Rep. Michelle Steel to represent the 45th District, centered in Little Saigon in Orange County. A constant stream of mailers painting Chen, a Taiwanese American, as having communist ties to China turned Padron off.
“He’s an American just like me,” Padron, a Democrat, said. “I don’t know why his opponent had to resort to red smears in the race."
Melissa Tran, a 31-year-old Vietnamese American, watched as older Asian American voters trickled into the recreation center. She suspects the demographic will be key in the race between Chen and Steel.
Tran said the attacks against Chen appeal to the fears of refugees like her parents and noted that they will be successful "unless first-generation Asian American voters like me turn out."
"I believe in what he's fighting for," Tran said of Chen, whom she voted for.
In Irvine, Cathy Lipton, 56, cast her vote for Republican Scott Baugh, who is running against Democratic Rep. Katie Porter to represent a coastal section of Orange County.
Lipton, a Republican, disliked Porter's television campaign ads, particularly related to abortion. It wasn't Baugh's platform, but her disdain for his opponent that motivated her vote. Porter has become a national Democratic star and is the most well known of the blue wave that swept the region's congressional seats in 2018.
"How awful she is was bigger in my mind," Lipton said.
Warren Jones was a muddle of emotions — none of them good — as he placed his ballot in a drop box near his bus stop in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood.
The 29-year-old said he wants Democrats to retain control of Congress, but he wasn't optimistic.
"It's important to realize that as much as you might want a certain thing, as much as we need Democrats to keep control of Congress, it's very likely not going to happen," Jones said. "I'm doing my part, but I've just kind of reconciled with that in my mind."
Support for California Proposition 1, which would explicitly protect the right to abortion in the state, brought many voters to the polls Tuesday.
Veronica Barajas, a nurse at USC, was unequivocal when asked what mattered most to her in this election: protecting abortion access and women's rights.
When the Supreme Court's ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade was leaked in the spring, it was so hard to fathom, she said, that she initially thought it was a joke.
"Really? We're going backward?" Barajas, a Democrat, said as she arrived at a recreational center in Baldwin Hills to cast her ballot. "It's scary thinking about how you can lose that right."
Her greatest fear is that a Republican majority in Congress might further erode women's ability to make decisions about their reproductive health.
The issue of safeguarding abortion rights in the wake of the court's ruling hits home for the 43-year-old. She has three daughters, ages 18, 17 and 13.
"My concern is as a mother," Barajas said. "I'm worried for their future and how it's going to affect them. ... I think everyone should have a say in what they do with their bodies."
Nhu-Nguyen Le, a 32-year-old emergency room doctor, said protecting abortion access brought him out to vote at the South Pasadena public library during a break in the rain.
"After the Supreme Court ruling this summer on Roe vs. Wade, it became important for me to vote and say that, at least here in California, reproductive rights are still important and that people's rights will be protected," Le said.
In Long Beach, Heather Downs, 56, walked her dog, Linus, to a yellow bin to drop off her ballot. She's fearful that Democrats may lose seats in the House and Senate and further restrictions on reproductive rights might be on the horizon.
As a mother of daughters, it was important to her to vote to codify those rights in the state Constitution. She said with that in mind she also voted to reelect Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“He’s not afraid to stand up to anyone and I think he’ll fight,” she said.
Across Los Angeles, the race for mayor between Caruso, a billionaire businessman and developer, and Rep. Karen Bass was a key motivator for many voters who ventured out in the inclement weather.
Ian Phillips, 35, trudged through the rain to the Masonic temple in Los Feliz with a thermos in hand. Phillips, who works in TV and film and describes himself as a "hard-left socialist," said he was eager to cast his ballot in the mayoral election.
“Making sure that Rick Caruso is not our next mayor was my primary motivating factor,” he said, adding that he disliked that Caruso recently registered as a Democrat.
“Karen Bass is just much more authentically an Angeleno,” he said.
Abby Boyle came ready for the wet weather, wearing bright red rain boots and a bucket hat as she cast her ballot at the temple.
The 23-year-old was motivated to vote in support of Proposition 1 and to ensure that "Caruso doesn't win this election," she said.
“I know a lot of Republicans are thinking that L.A. is going downhill and Rick Caruso will build a better L.A. But I don’t think that’s a better L.A. for everyone. I think that’s a better L.A. for the top 1%," she said.
John Adegbuji, a resident of East Hollywood, said he voted for Caruso because he thinks the developer's experience will be helpful in dealing with homelessness in the city.
After moving from Atlanta about four years ago, the Democrat said he's watched homelessness skyrocket during the pandemic. The streets are dirtier, and the 27-year-old, who typically votes only in presidential election years, said he felt compelled to cast a ballot to address his concerns.
"The other candidate’s been here for so long and I don’t like the way things have been going, so I just feel like there has to be a change in how the money is being spent," Adegbuji said outside the L.A. City College voting site. "I just feel like someone else should be in there trying to figure it out."
A light rain was beginning to fall Tuesday afternoon at a voting center in Woodland Hills in the northern San Fernando Valley, an area that’s historically been one of the more conservative parts of L.A. Some voters backed Caruso and some backed Bass, but both expressed a desire for change when explaining their picks.
"I just want something different," said Jason Hill, a 49-year-old musician who supported Caruso. At the same time, Hill said he wasn’t sure the businessman would be able to solve the city’s major problems.
Adam Iscove, 46, described both Bass and Caruso as “imperfect candidates,” but said that he settled on Bass. Iscove grew up in the L.A. area, went to Brentwood High School and didn’t want a mayor who came from a "wealthy, elite male class."
The Trump presidency left Iscove with a "bad taste," he said. Caruso didn’t support Trump and in fact, said he would ban him from the Grove, but that hasn’t stopped some voters from seeing similarities.
“White male businessmen aren’t my cup of tea,” said Iscove, who works as a video game producer.
Another voter leaving the center yelled “Down with Democrats!” when asked about the mayor’s race.
“Voting out Alex Villanueva was a huge one for me,” Liza Semenova, 31, said after casting her ballot in Beverly Hills. “I think we know that he doesn’t have the best track record, so making sure he isn’t reelected as sheriff was really important for me."
Stephanie Davino, 37, said she struggled between her two options for sheriff and ultimately settled on Luna because she feels L.A. County is "due for a change." She's a registered Democrat, but says she leans more toward the center on the political spectrum.
"I felt torn because I do feel like Villanueva has more of a hard-nose stance, which is I think is important for that type of position, but there’s a lot of controversy surrounding what he’s done and the things that he’s let slide or things that have gone on under his leadership,” Davino, a West Hollywood resident, said as she dropped off her mail-in ballot at Plummer Park.
Taylor McPherson, 31, a West Hollywood resident and Democrat, grew tired of waiting in line at the park to vote in person Tuesday afternoon. She decided to go home to fill out her ballot and drop it off instead.
“This is a big election," she said. "That’s why there are so many people here waiting to vote."
Times staff writers Robert Lopez, Ruben Vives, Dakota Smith, Tyrone Beason, Melissa Gomez, James Rainey, Grace Toohey, Gregory Yee and Julia Wick contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.