Voters also have the option of casting ballots in one of the County’s officials Ballot Drop Boxes, which are located throughout Santa Monica

By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. December 10, 2020

2020 has been a year like no other – including for Santa Monica municipal elections. Such a high number of candidates qualified for the City Council ballot (for the city’s four open, four-year seats), that it led to two columns on the hard copy vote-by-mail (VBM) ballot to list them all – and six screens on the County’s new in person touch screen, ballot-marking device (BMD) voting system.

According to numerous anecdotal reports received by the Santa Monica Daily Press — and by one of the ‘not re-elected incumbents’ whose name appeared near the bottom of the ballot — many voters had trouble finding/realizing there were candidates listed in a second column, or that they had to scroll down multiple screens to find all candidates. We’ll never know how this affected the final results – just like we don’t know whether the infamous confusing ‘butterfly ballot’ in Palm Beach County, Florida gave the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush.

But this can’t be good for our democracy.

Ballot order

The order that candidates appear on all ballots in California is governed by state Elections Code 13112, which requires that the Secretary of State conduct a random drawing of the letters of the alphabet, which then determines ballot order by the letters of a candidate’s last name.

It’s widely acknowledged that the first-listed candidate is more likely to be voted for, especially in a large field. This year’s drawing gave that coveted first listing to candidates whose last name started with the letter ‘B’. As it happened, the last name for the highest voter-getter for Santa Monica City Council this year (one of three non-incumbents elected) started with ‘B’.

But what about when a candidate’s name doesn’t appear in the same column as most of the rest of the candidates, and instead appears in a second column — or in the case of BMD machines — only by scrolling through as many as six screens? Since 1977 and before 2020, the number of candidates appearing on the ballot in the city’s twenty-two regular elections city council elections ranged from six to 18. Only four of those had more than 14. Never did it result in multiple columns to list them all.

The effect of so many candidates

What was different in 2020? One major difference was the signature requirement to qualify for the ballot was lowered from 100 nomination signatures to 30, owing to the global COVID-19 pandemic. The second was that Los Angeles County designed the ballots differently.

California Government Code 8634 empowers governments to “promulgate orders and regulations necessary to provide for the protection of life and property during a local emergency.” Under Chapter 2.16 the Santa Monica Municipal Code, when a local emergency has been proclaimed — as has been the case in Santa Monica because of COVID-19 since March 13, the City Manager (in her/his role as the Director of Emergency Services), may “make and issue rules and regulations on matters reasonably related to the protection of life and property as affected by such emergency; provided, however, such rules and regulations must be confirmed at the earliest practicable time by the City Council.”

Upon this basis – and after receiving direct input from Councilmembers and members of the public, Santa Monica Interim City Manager Lane Dilg lowered the proposed nomination signature requirement to 60 and then 30, citing that gathering these signatures from nominating voters “poses risks resulting from possible personal contact between and among those circulating nominating papers and the voters signing those nominating papers, [and that] those risks increase as the required number of original nominating signatures increase.” On July 14 the City Council confirmed that decision without debate — and there was no public testimony.

Did this result in more candidates qualifying for the ballot than normal? The general rule of thumb in Santa Monica is that the number of heavyweight candidates with a realistic chance at being elected is no more than double the number of open seats (and sometimes fewer); and they usually come from two competing slates. Often there are a few other well-informed candidates (without the same standing in the community) who finish in the middle of the pack; then a few others with little or no history of community involvement who finish near the bottom.

In 2020 there were two competing slates equaling eight candidates in total; but the number of ‘others’ was equal to or exceeded the total number of candidates in 16 of the previous 22 regular city council elections. The result of this extraordinary number of ‘other’ candidates on ballot, was that the names of several candidates were pushed near the end of the ballot where many voters did not easily find them, including two of the three incumbents not re-elected.

Design by committee

Which brings us to the new ballot design. This year the County of Los Angeles implemented its new Voting Solutions for All People (VSAP) program, which added BMD voting for all those who voted in person; while because of the pandemic, the State of California mandated that for the first time ever, VBM ballots be sent to all voters in the state, which could be mailed in or dropped off at drop boxes or vote centers.

On the County’s new VBM ballots, in order to provide greater accessibility and readability, they changed from a single line for each candidate on the old-style ballots — that listed a candidate’s name followed by their three-word ballot designation — to a line each for the candidate’s name and their ballot designation, with the name printed in much larger font than in the past. At the same time, the County created much larger ballot cards to allows for more contests to be printed on a single page, and/or to have multiple columns for a given contest when the number of candidates demanded it.

With its new BMD voting system, the County also needed to comply with accessibility regulations – and rightfully so, because our right to vote needs to be accessible to all, inclusive of our differing abilities.

In reviewing best ballot design practices (as part of the VSAP research and development process – which involved an inclusive multi-year, multi-stakeholder public process), the County landed upon their BMD design showing four candidates on a single screen; and if more than four candidates appear in a single contest, a MORE button would appear on the bottom of the screen.

How well did these VBM and BMD designs work in combination with Santa Monica’s extraordinarily high number of candidates? Read Ballot Placement Displacement – Part II tomorrow.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004), a co-founder of the Green Party of California, and was a 2018 Green candidate for California Secretary of State. He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein.

‘Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.