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Is Asking for Identification to Vote in a Neighborhood Council Election Voter Suppression?

NC VOTER SUPPRESSION--This Tuesday, May 11, 2021, at the Los Angeles’ City Council’s Arts, Parks, Health, Education, and Neighborhoods Committee meeting, the Committee will consider Council File # 21-0407, offered by Councilmember Monica Rodriguez (photo above). 

The Council file # 21 – 0407 has strong language related not only to our Neighborhood Council System’s Elections, but language related to “Voter Suppression.” This is the Motion for Council File #21-0407

“The Neighborhood Council system was established in 1999 to connect LA's diverse communities to City Hall. Neighborhood Council board members are volunteers, elected to office by the members of their community, with the purpose of ensuring that the diverse voices from every neighborhood are heard by City Hall. Democracy cannot exist without a fair electoral process at every level of government. As the closest form of government to the people, Neighborhood Councils must ensure their elections are inclusive, accessible, and transparent. 

Today, the City of Los Angeles is home to 99 Neighborhood Councils, each with its own election process. Where a person lives in the city determines the inclusivity of the process to cast a ballot, including whether photo identification is required. Requiring photo identification to vote, although seemingly unobstructive, is voter suppression, as many have experienced during the current Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council election. Obtaining identification is a significant burden for many groups as IDs can be costly and the travel required is often an obstacle for people with disabilities, the eldery, and people living in rural areas. As voter suppression efforts take root across the United States, it is even more important that the City of Los Angeles reconfirms our commitment to voter rights, and equal and consistent elections throughout the neighborhood council system, ensuring that everyone who wants to participate in this grassroots democracy, is provided the same opportunity as their neighbors in other communities. 

I THEREFORE MOVE that the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment be instructed to report with a survey of Neighborhood Council Election rules, with an analysis on how the bylaws of different Neighborhood Councils vary on election issues, including, but not limited to: eligibility requirements for Board seats, governing board structure, stakeholder requirements, and stakeholder verification. 

I FURTHER MOVE that the City Attorney be requested to report on the City Council's authority to standardize election rules across Neighborhood Councils, and potential limits to this authority. 

I FURTHER MOVE that the City Clerk be directed to report on the costs associated with

administering the existing nonstandardized Neighborhood Council election systems, and provide recommendations for streamlining Neighborhood Council elections, and potential cost savings that could result from standardizing Neighborhood Council election rules.” 

Is asking a stakeholder for identification “Voter Suppression”? 

No. In my opinion, according to the California Secretary of State website, identification is required when a resident first applies to register to vote. 

I went to the Secretary of State website, and I looked for the requirements to register to vote in California. This is a screen shot from one page regarding what you will need to register to vote in the State of California for the first time.  

What You Will Need to register online: 

  • Your California driver license or California identification card number,
  • The last four digits of your social security number and
  • Your date of birth.

So according to the Secretary of State’s office, to register to vote for the first time, you would need to show your identification to vote in an election. Then after you have registered to vote, you would be sent the appropriate ballots by the agency that is implementing elections in your community – whether in this case it would be the County of Los Angeles or the City of Los Angeles depending on the type of election. 

You would then have a preprinted ballot that identifies you with your name and address information, and your polling place information. 

Why you should need identification to vote in any governmental election. 

More than a decade ago, the definition of a Community Based Stakeholder was much broader. I recall going to a meeting of the City Council Committee that was the predecessor to this one named above. If I recall, Councilmember Dennis Zine and Councilmember Janice Hahn were on that committee at the time. I explained to the Councilmembers that I had, with their general “community-based stakeholder” definition, a stake in numerous Neighborhood Council areas. 

I told them I had gone to college in Woodland Hills and Northridge and had lived in Reseda, Tarzana, Canoga Park, Winnetka, Woodland Hills, and West Hills. I had worked in Reseda, Tarzana, Canoga Park, and in West Hills. I was involved with various community groups in Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, Woodland Hills, and Chatsworth. Did this mean I should be allowed to vote in each Neighborhood Council election? 

With a “Community Interest Stakeholder” definition, or any stakeholder status besides a personal address, I believe it is necessary to present proof of that status or anyone can show up to vote in any election. In fact, as we heard in the past year, someone could attempt to vote more than once in the same election! 

Neighborhood Councils – Stakeholder Definition 

Los Angeles City Charter – In 1999, the City Charter established the Neighborhood Council System and the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment which supports the Neighborhood Councils “to promote more citizen participation in government and make government more responsive to local needs…” Charter Section 900.” 

Many people who have been involved with the Neighborhood Council system for a long time are aware that the Neighborhood Council system was created primarily in response to an attempt by some residents of the San Fernando Valley to create a succession movement to separate the San Fernando Valley from the City of Los Angeles to create their own City. 

It is my understanding that the definition of a stakeholder was designed to appease numerous stakeholder groups which include not only residents, but businesses, chambers of commerce, economic alliances, property owners, as well as those who are members of community-based organizations. It is also my understanding that the definition was designed with a stakeholder definition that was inclusive of these various groups so that the Neighborhood Councils would not be seen as just “Homeowner Associations.” 

What is the Current Definition of a Neighborhood Council Stakeholder? 

On May 6, 2020, the City Council voted to clarify the definition of a stakeholder with Council Ordinance # 186761. 

“Sec. 22.801.1. Neighborhood Council Stakeholder. 

(a). Stakeholder. For the purposes of this chapter, a certified neighborhood council “stakeholder” or “community stakeholder” shall be defined as: 

  • Any individual who lives, works, or owns real property within the boundaries of the neighborhood council; or 

(2.) Any individual who is a Community Interest Stakeholder, as defined in Subsection (b) of this section, within the boundaries of the neighborhood council. 

(b) Community Interest Stakeholder. A “Community Interest Stakeholder' is an individual who is a member of or participates in a Community Organization, as defined in Subsection (c) of this section. 

(c) Community Organization. For the purposes of this section, a “Community Organization” is an entity that has continuously maintained a physical street address within the boundaries of the neighborhood council for not less than one year, and that performs ongoing and verifiable activities and operations that confer some benefit on the community within the boundaries of the neighborhood council. 

  • A for-profit entity shall not qualify as a Community Organization. 

(2) Examples of a Community Organization may include chambers of commerce, houses of worship or other faith-based organizations, educational institutions, or non-profit organizations.” 

What is the result of these definitions of a stakeholder? 

With 99 Neighborhood Councils in the City of Los Angeles, you have 99 potentially different sets of Bylaws that may require documentation to vote; may limit the number of Board members by category; and there is no overriding factor that I can see to justify the various Board member categories in the four Neighborhood Councils that are closest to me. 

The Right to Vote: 

In my opinion, if Councilmember Rodriguez, who authored this Motion, and other Councilmembers genuinely wanted their residents to be heard, they would limit the definition of a stakeholder to residents only. Residents can include the homeless as is allowed in the charter, but the entity that handles Neighborhood Council elections would have to work with other City and County agencies to determine how to best enroll the homeless for a Neighborhood Council election. 

Furthermore, if Councilmembers brought more attention to the Neighborhood Councils in general through community outreach, then more of the Councilmember’s constituents would become aware of the Neighborhood Council system, what their functions are, and how to vote in those Neighborhood Council elections. 

As a former Neighborhood Councilmember in West Hills and an active participant in the Woodland Hills Warner Center and Canoga Park Neighborhood Councils, I know that I appreciated Councilmember Dennis Zine bringing Board members Certificates of Appreciation for their volunteer time. I would see Councilmember Zine at our Neighborhood Council elections because he is a resident of West Hills. 

I know that Councilmember John Lee has had an active presence with the West Hills Neighborhood Council since he was Chief of Staff in Council District 12. 

And I am aware that Councilmember Bob Blumenfield is actively engaged with both the Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council as well as the Canoga Park Neighborhood Council.

Having a Councilmember or other elected official attend Neighborhood Council meetings and events is a way to promote the Neighborhood Council system. 

Where a person lives in the city determines the inclusivity of the process to cast a ballot, including whether photo identification is required.” 

This line is from Councilmember Rodriguez’s motion. Is it fair that a business entity that may be in a foreign county (think Westfield) has a stakeholder status the same as a local resident?

Is it fair that someone who does not live in the City of Los Angeles and does not even live in the County of Los Angeles can vote or be a Board member because they work or own property in a community? 

This is what I see as true disenfranchisement of the residents’ rights to representation of their community – the rights of those who work, own property, or have a community-based stakeholder status supersedes the rights of those who have financially invested in the purchase of a residence or who pay rent to live there. 

Requiring photo identification to vote, although seemingly unobstructive, is voter suppression, as many have experienced during the current Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council election.” 

Why is the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council being accused of voter suppression in a Council motion relative to future elections? 

In the certified results of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council, I was surprised to see the election results. 

Not only do they have more people voting than many neighborhood councils near me, but they allow the Community to elect the Executive Committee members of their Board. I have never seen another Neighborhood Council that does this. 

In Conclusion: 

  • I respectfully request that the Councilmembers of this committee recommend that Councilmember Rodriguez apologize to the Board members and candidates of the Sunland-Tujunga Neighborhood Council for accusing them of “Voter Suppression.” 
  • It is my opinion that stating in a Council Motion these “Elected Officials” who are Neighborhood Council members “suppressed a vote” could potentially cause civil liability to the City of Los Angeles. 
  • I highly recommend that the Arts, Parks, Health, Education, and Neighborhood Committee vote to change the definition of a Stakeholder for Board member and voting purposes to residents only (which would include the unhoused in that community at the time of that election). 
  • It should be made clear to the Neighborhood Councils that members of the community as defined as “Work, own property, or are members of a Community Based Organization” are “community members” with a right to participate in their Neighborhood Council meetings and discussions. 
  • Finally, and I think most importantly, is the lack of ability for some residents to access the internet to register to vote. For a community to achieve real “stakeholder” turn out requires the ability to vote on a weekend if possible – in person voting – with multilingual employees or volunteers there to assist voters in the registration and voting process. If election day for a City, County, State, or Federal Election is a full day, and if they allow “Early Voting” in person prior to those elections, then why aren’t there the same requirements for Neighborhood Council elections?

 

(Chris Rowe is a 43-year resident of West Hills, California. She is a Public Health and Environmental Health Advocate. She was employed at Northridge Hospital, Tarzana Medical Center, and West Hills Hospital while in pursuit of her college degrees. She has a B.S. in Health Education from CSUN. Chris is a former member of the West Hills Neighborhood Council and she has served on committees of the Woodland Hills Warner Center Neighborhood Council. She has a blog on the USC / Annenburg School of Health Journalism site: Christine Rowe - Member | Center for Health Journalism Chris has written for the Daily News, OURLA.ORG, RonKayeLA.org, and for CityWatch.) She is also the editor of a series of children’s textbooks on animal life written by her husband Bruce M. Rowe, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Los Angeles Pierce College. Photo: Elizabeth Chou/LA Daily News. Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.