Low Voter Turnout in NC Elections: Is the City Clerk’s One-Size-Fits-All System to Blame?

GELFAND’S WORLD-The neighborhood council elections were, in some sense, the final gasp of the lockdown.

There were rules upon rules, complexity upon complexity, and the result was that people who had usually voted didn't show up. But there is more to the story. 

For the past few years, the neighborhood council elections have been run by the office of the City Clerk. They occur every two years, in the year that does not coincide with the general elections. We now have the entire city's results which you can check out here

It's not a pretty picture. 

At one time, neighborhood councils ran their own elections. It is still possible to do so if you put up with some absurd requirements. One is that voters have to sign their ballots. (Don't ask.) Needless to say, some would-be voters don't want to have their voting preferences made public and therefore avoid casting a ballot. 

The only elections allowing unsigned ballots are run by the City Clerk. When the entirety of the election process was handed over to the Clerk, neighborhood councils were promised that the city would do the advertising (the buzz word for this is "outreach") and they wouldn't have to. They would, however, have to give up their own design and control of the election process. 

It worked for a while. The Clerk and groups of neighborhood councils did a good bit of advertising, particularly in the San Fernando Valley. I don't know how much advertising went on north of the Hollywood hills this year, but I can tell you that down in the harbor, it was pretty close to zero. 

The result of the city's failure to inform its residents that neighborhood councils exist -- and that candidates could sign up to run -- had the expected effect. 

If you look at the official results page linked above, you will notice a distinct peculiarity. Out of the 93 neighborhood council elections, fully 15 of those elections did not occur because there weren't enough candidates to have even one contested vote. You can see that on the results page for the neighborhood councils marked with an asterisk and the words "Board Affirmation." 

In brief, the city set up a system and made promises about what it would do, and then didn't deliver. Members of neighborhood council boards had no personal incentive to recruit people to run against themselves. The overall result was fairly low in impact because it was low in effort. 

Very few new people ran. Old timers knew enough to register as candidates and then sat back and watched. You might say that there wasn't a lot of incentive to get the word out to the general public. 

Turnout in elections which did occur. 

Now let's look at some of the races, ones where there were contested elections. In order to avoid bias, let's start with Region 1 and take the first of the alphabetically arranged council results. This happens to be the Arleta Neighborhood Council. 

In this election there were a total of eight names on the ballot who were running for a total of seven seats. (Some councils elect half their boards in one election and the other half in the next.) The highest vote getter received 32 votes. In one of the contested races, the winner got 21 votes. The highest total vote count in any one race was 61, and it was divided among two winners at 29 and 26 votes, respectively. 

If you were to look at the very next neighborhood council on the list, the Foothill Trails District Neighborhood Council, you would see an election that makes Arleta's look robust. There were 12 candidates of whom 10 were elected. Here are the winning scores in this election: 6, 6, 10, 8, 11, 8, 12. 6, 9, 8. That seems to total 84 votes combined for all 10 winners. 

This is not to say that every neighborhood council election turned out this way. Venice and Mar Vista, for example, had nearly 2000 voters each, but elections with a lot of votes seem to be few and far between, and in general they appear to be the councils which are fought over by factions which don't seem to like each other very much. 

One reason voters were turned off. 

There was another reason for such a pathetic voter turnout. 

The decision was made by the authorities to hold an all-mail balloting. There were no physical polling places on election day. The problem is that the City Clerk demanded that every voter register in advance for the neighborhood council election by submitting a photo or scan of a picture ID such as a California Driver License. It's not surprising that a lot of people found this to be of concern, both a violation of their privacy and a potential danger of identity theft. Some people I talked to made the effort to register with a photo ID and then cast a mail-in ballot, but it was not without a certain level of disgruntlement. 

The Deeper Lesson 

There is a deeper lesson. The neighborhood councils began life as much more independent operations who (beginning in 2001) scheduled, planned, and ran their own elections. Then there was pressure from the City Council to turn elections over to the more formal process represented by the City Clerk. 

But I can still remember the words of the City Clerk (at the time), who described how he responded to the inquiry as to whether his department would run neighborhood council elections. 

"First I said No. Then I said HELL NO!" Then he agreed to take on the job, but only on his terms and conditions. 

Neighborhood councils were left with a quandary. We could either go to a signed ballot (in order to run our own elections) or change to a two-year term of office because that is what the Clerk insisted on. 

One other thing. During this period, the city was, bit by bit, reducing the annual stipend given to each neighborhood council, thus leaving less and less available to do the outreach necessary if we were to run our own elections. So my neighborhood council, like everyone else, eventually gave in to doing things the Clerk's way. 

As a candidate, I didn't feel comfortable asking strangers to give up their privacy in order to register for this one election. Some candidates around the city did campaign, but I suspect that the number who did so was a lot lower than previously. 

The Punchline 

In retrospect, there is a conclusion to be drawn that is uncomfortable but has actually been obvious since the City Clerk took over the neighborhood council elections. 

In the final analysis, the 2021 neighborhood council elections were organized and run for the convenience of the City Clerk's office, not in order to suit the interests of the separate neighborhood councils. 

For example, my neighborhood council would have held an in-person election (perhaps with a vote-by-mail option) sometime in May or June. It wouldn't have been a lot different from the in-person voting we had last November, or even from the way people line up in supermarkets. We could have figured out how to do six feet apart. But when the Clerk's office took over, everything had to be their way and it all had to be the same. 

Most of us expect that the next time neighborhood council elections roll around (in two years) it will be business as usual. But the lessons of 2021 show the rigidity of the system and, to a considerable extent, a lack of imagination. 

And why not just accept registered voter status to begin with? 

The final outrage 

And one last observation. Back just a few years ago, one ethically challenged City Councilman pushed through a rules change that allowed the creation of the Hermon Neighborhood Council. It is most famous for being of microscopically small population. But this year's election may be the frosting on this slice of history cake. There were 10 candidates for 9 seats. Here are the votes received by each of the winning candidates: 

2, 0, 3, 4, 6, 7, 7, 5, 7 

Yeah, I don't quite get that race where somebody got zero votes and still won. Apparently, he was the only candidate in a district level race. And by the way, the only one to lose had exactly 1 vote.

And as far as I know, this council will still get $32,000 of your taxpayer money to play with starting July 1.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.