By Bob Gelfand.
Online balloting is a potentially interesting experiment. It’s something that we may want to consider at the municipal or statewide level. The advantage is that it allows us to extend voting to fit the way people now do most of their communicating, which is to say, online and by smart phone. We’ve become an internet generation.
But online voting is a different issue when applied to our city’s neighborhood councils. Right now, neighborhood councils have their own system of elections that by historical standards have not been well attended. Online election of the local councils, by raising the vote totals substantially, could raise their credibility with City Council members.
For most of the people who have voted in past neighborhood council elections, the idea of an online vote is probably acceptable. This way, they can cast their votes at a time of their own choosing, and from wherever they choose.
The difficulty arises, as it always has, due to the vague and arbitrary definition of what it means to be a lawful voter in a neighborhood council election. That definition is completely different from the standard rules for being a registered voter.
Here is what is required to be a registered voter under California law. You have to be a U.S. citizen and resident of California who is at least 18 years of age as of election day. There are additional rules limiting the voting rights of people who have been found to be mentally incompetent by a court, or who are serving or have recently served prison sentences.
Interestingly, none of the limitations for registering as a California voter apply to neighborhood council elections. Simple residency suffices, but it is not the only way to be allowed to vote in a neighborhood council election. If you work or own property in the City of Los Angeles, you also gain eligibility. The latter conditions have been the cause of numerous debates about preventing special interest groups from taking over a neighborhood council. These debates continue.
What’s worse is the extension that the City Council recently added to neighborhood council voting eligibility. The extension refers to “Community Interest” voters. They are described as follows:
“The new Community Interest Stakeholder is defined as a person who affirms a substantial and ongoing participation within the Neighborhood Council’s boundaries and who may be in a community organization such as, but not limited to, educational, non-profit and/religious organizations.”
This was supposed to be an improvement on a previous loophole known as the “factual basis stakeholder,” which opened neighborhood council voting to pretty much anybody who asked for it. That’s because the “factual basis” was so broadly construed as to be essentially meaningless. It became something of a joke, because critics referred to the fact that somebody who bought coffee at the local Starbucks would thereby gain the right to vote in the local neighborhood council election.
The City Council passed the new Community Interest definition in the attempt to tighten up this loophole, but in so doing, it created a new mess.
The problem is that deciding what is a “substantial and ongoing participation” is necessarily a judgment call. If you have coffee at the Corner Store several times a week and discuss politics, is that the kind of participation that the law intends? If you drop your kid at the Boys and Girls Club and pick him up later, is that an example of the intended participation? How about if you send a donation to the local land conservancy and receive a membership card in return?
For such questions, somebody has to make a decision as to whether or not the level of participation is “substantial.” This is obviously arbitrary at some level, in the sense that different people can reach different conclusions as to whether or not the level of participation fulfills the substantial and ongoing requirements. In practice, a city employee or contractor will have to make that decision.
This is potentially a problem even in an election held at a defined polling place, but in practice it hasn’t been so onerous as to damage the recent neighborhood council elections. There just aren’t that many of the Community Interest voters to make much of a difference most of the time. Such voters are vetted by an election officer, and difficult cases can be handled through the use of provisional ballots.
This kind of control is obviously less rigorous than what we are used to in regular elections, namely the requirement that you actually live within a particular district in order to vote. The residence requirement is clear and unambiguous, as a couple of former elected officials discovered to their chagrin when they were convicted of registering and voting in places where they did not actually reside. Under the neighborhood council voting rules, it would have been impossible to convict former Sen. Rod Wright or former City Councilman Richard Alarcon.
Unless or until the City of Los Angeles fixes its Charter in order to remove the neighborhood council voting ambiguities, we are stuck with some level of mushiness in deciding who is eligible to vote.
And online voting is where it could get really sticky. The specific problem involves one other choice that individual neighborhood councils get to make. Some councils require some tangible proof of voting eligibility. For example, an ID card such as a driver’s license demonstrating residency within the district has always been an acceptable level of proof. Other councils accept what is called “self affirmation.” That means that all you have to do is say that you are eligible to vote and they have to accept your word for it.
Now imagine a system in which people can register online, assert their eligibility merely by self affirmation, and then vote. The expression “can of worms” doesn’t begin to do justice to the mischief that could result. Modern day social media and internet discussion sites can spread a story to tens of thousands of people within minutes. Some fraction of internet participants enjoy doing practical jokes, and another fraction seem to enjoy cruel pranks. In fact, there is a developing science that studies these people, who are colloquially referred to as “trolls.”
My prediction is that self-affirmation voting will not survive for long in the context of online voting which includes online registration. There are just too many people using the internet, and it would only take a small fraction to crash a local neighborhood council election. Suppose somebody with an evil sense of humor put out a bulletin that one group of neighborhood council board candidates were in favor of gun control, and another group were opposed. How would our election officials be able to deal with ten or twenty thousand people trying to register and vote, all in the same day?
This is just one of the complications that would attend online neighborhood council voting. There may be solutions to such problems, depending on the legalities. For example, it would make sense to create a system of online voting that is available to registered voters within each neighborhood council district, and in addition is extended to other non-citizen residents of each district. That would solve the problem of having tens of thousands of wannabe voters from out of state.
The Board of Neighborhood Commissioners (BONC) has scheduled a discussion of this issue in the middle of this month. The Los Angeles Neighborhood Council Coalition (Lancc) has asked the BONC to put off its discussion for a month, in order to give neighborhood councils the chance to weigh in on the question.
Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.