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Teen from Tustin could go to November ballot thanks to write-in candidate rules

A write-in candidate winning a state or federal race is a bit like the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. It’s not impossible but it almost never happens.

That’s OK by write-in candidate Leon Sit. He has no real interest in getting elected to office anyway. But the 19-year-old engineering student from North Tustin has a good chance of being one of two candidates on the November ballot for an Assembly race, giving him a non-zero shot at representing about 500,000 people in the state that boasts the world’s fifth biggest economy.

Last month, after seeing that no candidates had stepped up to challenge Assemblyman Phillip Chen, R-Brea, in the June 7 primary for the newly drawn 59th Assembly District — a solidly red district that covers northeast Orange County along with Chino Hills in San Bernardino County — Sit paused his college studies. He then started going door-to-door to collect more than 40 signatures of support he needed to become an official write-in candidate for the race.

“I don’t expect to win. I have other stuff going on, to be honest,” said Sit, who’s registered as No Party Preference.

But the idea of letting an election become a “coronation,” where a crown was simply passed to the incumbent with no competition, didn’t sit right with him. “You shouldn’t really let people cross the finish line without having, essentially, a round of voting.”

One other write-in candidate also filed signatures and a brief candidate’s statement with the Orange County Registrar of Voters by the Tuesday deadline to be a write-in candidate in AD-59 for the June 7 election: David Naranjo, chair of the Libertarian Party of Orange County.

Naranjo, a Brea resident who owns a real estate appraisal business, hasn’t previously run for office. But Libertarians commonly look for uncontested seats and float their own write-in candidates, since it’s perhaps the easiest way for a party that accounts for just over 1% of registered voters in the state to get a candidate on the November ballot. And like Sit, Naranjo, 46, said he also wanted to make sure voters have a choice this fall.

If the state certifies both write-in candidates’ signatures later this week, whichever one gets the most voters to recognizably spell out his name and fill in the adjacent box on their primary ballot will automatically advance to face Chen on the decisive November ballot. That’ll happen even if one of the write-ins beats the other two votes to one.

The scenario is possible thanks to a combination of California rules around write-in candidates and a state voting system in which the two people who get the most votes in the primary move on to November.

Anyone can write any name they want on a ballot in any election. Mickey Mouse, among others, has been a long-standing vote recipient in presidential elections. But (sorry Mickey) to actually win an election and hold office all candidates, even write-ins, have to meet all the typical standards to run for office. These include being a citizen, being at least 18 years old and, for state offices, living in the district they’re running to represent.

However, in California, as in 31 other states, those write-in votes only get counted — and the candidate can only potentially win — if the person first jumps through a few simple hoops to become certified before the primary. For statewide or U.S. Senate seats, those hoops include getting a few dozen signatures of support — 65 to run for the U.S. Senate and 40 to run for a House seat, the state Board of Equalization, or any elected office in the state legislature.

The Secretary of State is slated to publish its list of certified write-in candidates for all of those offices on Friday, May 27.

In Orange County, the Registrar’s office said Thursday that only three candidates filed sufficient nomination signatures and a Statement of Write-In Candidacy to get their names on the June 7 ballot: Sit and Naranjo for AD-59 and Republican Hilaire Fuji Shioura in the 45th House District.

Shioura, who’s toyed with runs for Congress and governor before, lost a 2018 bid for Anaheim mayor. His chances of making the November ballot in CA-45 are much slimmer than the the odds for Sit or Naranjo, since he’s challenging a field that includes incumbent Michelle Steel, R-Seal Beach, along with GOP challenger Long Pham and Democratic challenger Jay Chen.

Getting on the November ballot is one thing. Winning an election as a write-in candidate is something else.

Voters are five times more likely to support write-in candidates now than they were 40 years ago, according to data from the Federal Election Commission. Experts attribute the trend to growing dissatisfaction with the political system overall. (Libertarian Naranjo said he’s heard from voters in recent years who are disillusioned with the two-party dominance of American politics.)

But write-in candidates still account for fewer than than 1% of all votes cast. And while voters might be more open to write-ins than they used to be, there’s no data to suggest the odds of a write-in candidate actually winning have gone up.

History offers a handful of examples of write-in success stories in major races across the country.

In the 1954 general election, former South Carolina governor Strom Thurmond became the first U.S. Senator ever elected as a write-in. That Senate record stood until 2010, when Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose family had been in politics for decades, won her Senate seat through a write-in campaign.

Charlie Wilson was a state senator in Ohio when he won a House seat as a write-in candidate in 2006. And some big-city mayors have used write-in campaigns to win seats in places such as Detroit and Buffalo, where the slogan “write down Byron Brown” helped Mayor Byron Brown claim his victory in November.

Elections experts reached for this story couldn’t recount anything similar in California. But cases like Sit’s — where a write-in takes on an otherwise solo candidate — pop up each cycle. In 2018, in the south Los Angeles and South Bay area 64th Assembly District, Republican write-in Theresa Sanford pulled nine votes during that year’s primary, getting her name on the November ballot against incumbent Assemblyman Mike Gipson, D-Carson. Sanford went on to receive 15,010 votes in November, or 68,000 fewer votes than than Gipson.

As you may have noticed, the winning candidates have two things in common: prior name recognition and access to, or ability to raise, lots of money. Successful write-in campaigns tend to be even pricier than traditional campaigns, since candidates have to educate voters about the write-in voting process, making sure they know to add their name and to scribble in the box next to that spot.

At least one person has done that for Sit.

Henry Nguyen Phuoc, 19, of Orange said he found Sit on Twitter through the hashtag #ElectionTwitter and started following his work with SplitTicket, a blog and Twitter account that Sit and three friends run to share maps and analysis about upcoming elections. While Sit said he’s not particularly interested in politics, he is fascinated by what political data can tell us about our world and enjoys connecting with people over these issues.

Phuoc said it’s “fun to hear someone around my age” who’s interested in politics. So when he learned Sit had started a write-in campaign for AD59, he said his vote was “an easy choice.”

“I believe there should be at least two candidates in any election,” he said, adding that Sit “seems like a dedicated, smart and thoughtful person.”

Asked about write-in challengers, Chen’s campaign manager Ali Navid said, “We live in a Democracy. The Assemblyman believes in choice.” But he added: “We are just going to continue to focus on the issues we believe matter most to residents,” which he said include things like public safety, the economy and bringing more high-paying jobs to the state.

Naranjo’s write-in campaign just came together in recent weeks. But he said he aims to focus on fiscal issues, such as lowering taxes, along with criminal justice reform and education issues such as school choice.

Three issues most important to Sit are the environment, including efforts to move away from single-use plastics; tackling inflation; and improving access to mental health services.

Sit said that while he’s sure he and Chen don’t “see eye to eye” on every issue, he doesn’t have any particular criticism of the incumbent, saying Chen has “represented the district reasonably well.” Sit said he pre-registered to vote as a Republican when he was 17, in 2019, and switched to No Party Preference when he launched this campaign.

While voter registration in AD 59 favors Republicans by more than 7 points, Sit noted that Donald Trump would have won the district by only 1.4 points. So he was surprised Democrats didn’t put anyone up for the seat.

Asked why that was the case, Ajay Mohan, executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County, declined to comment.

Source: Orange County Register

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