By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. December 11, 2020

The 2020 global COVID-19 pandemic has challenged many aspects of our lives and caused us to rethink how we live more than ever.  It also impacted our local elections.

In response to the need to social distance, the City’s decades-old requirement to obtain at least 100 nomination signatures from registered Santa Monica voters was lowered to 30, leading to an extraordinarily high number of candidates on the ballot for City Council. At the same time, Los Angeles County implemented new ballot designs under its Voting Solutions for All People (VSAP) program for both vote-by-mail (VBM) and in-person, ballot-marking-device (BMD) ballots.

Together this led 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) that many voters had trouble finding/realizing there were candidates listed in a second column on the VBM ballot, or that they had to scroll down multiple screens to find all candidates on the BMD ballots.

Diminishing returns

In its post-election review podcast, Santa Monica Daily Press editor Matt Hall and publisher Ross Furukawa and Todd James noted that the two lowest vote-getters among the three not re-elected incumbents appeared in a second column on the VBM ballot (and near the bottom of the BMD ballots). They followed with a scathing argument that the extraordinary number of City Council candidates had crossed a line of credibility, leading to many candidates who failed to articulate interesting viewpoints, appeared to be running for selfish reasons, were individuals with no prior record of community involvement, and had raised no money and had no real campaigns.

With so many candidates, the Daily Press argued, this made it difficult to hold effective candidate debates or forums, with little time available for each candidate to articulate their views — and with the curious voter being the loser. They concluded that with so many candidates on the ballot, Santa Monica has made itself a joke, and by legitimizing non-serious candidates, has de-legitimized its democracy.

Hindsight being 20/20

How might the City and County have handled this better? The July 14 Staff Report proposing the 30 signature threshold contained only a single 101-word paragraph on the topic near the end of a 4,414 word Consent Calendar agenda item to ratify COVID-19 Emergency Proclamations and Supplements.

There was no analysis whether the decreased threshold might result in an abnormally high number of candidates. This would have led to contacting the County to inquire how this would affect ballot placement — and by bringing that before the public, the possibly to debate trade-offs.

This also would have also been the place for City Clerk Denise Anderson-Warren to report that she interprets California Election Code Section 10227 literally — i.e. that “All forms required for nomination and election to all municipal offices shall be furnished only by the city elections official” — meaning candidates can neither photocopy nor scan copies of the form to voters.  Not an unreasonable interpretation, but I’ve been on the ballot for county and statewide elections before and was able to photocopy and scan in both. It turns out Los Angeles County interprets Section 10227 and Section 8101 (which applies to congressional, state, and county office and party central committee) differently, with the original copy needing to come from election officials, but allowing copies and scans to be made thereafter.

Had this been a matter of public debate, the City Council could have weighed in to permit such an opportunity. Voters could have received a scanned or mailed nomination signature at home, or downloaded one from social media, have members of their family sign, then mail it back to the candidate or leave it outside for pickup.

As Interim City Manger Dilg responded, “as is true with so many things, this is an area where the pandemic presented new questions, not previously considered.” And she’s right. But unfortunately while most of the world has tried to adapt to the need to socially-distance by utilizing electronic technologies, the rationale behind Santa Monica’s lower signature requirement as ratified by the City Council was stuck in pre-COVID 19, in-person logic.  Any credible candidate with a record in the community that actually did a little advance planning — and not just incumbents — could have easily put together an email list of local voters from their existing contacts, as well as distributed their scanned form via social media, then held socially-distanced Zoom signing parties while showing everyone how to correctly fill out the form. From this a threshold of far more valid ‘wet’ signatures could have been easily attained, that would not have created the negative domino effects of too many non-serious candidates on the ballot.

Confusion by design

In response to my inquiry about the two-column confusion for the City Council race, the County stated that the VBM ballot “includes clear headers with the name of the contest and the number of eligible selections in each column.” Unfortunately for Santa Monica, this was not the case.

In the first column, it said in black lettering over a light grey background: “SANTA MONICA CITY GENERAL MUNICIPAL ELECTION Member of the City Council Vote For No More Than FOUR”. Then in a second column that had an orange colored box at the top – and remarkably did not mention the race in which the candidates listed underneath were running – it said “Contest continues from previous column’. That was where five candidates were marooned – including two ultimately not re-elected incumbents.

For voters going through a long ballot of local, state and federal races as well as the many ballot measures — and who are used to acting upon visual cues in our daily lives (like we do in super markets when we search by label), a more sensible design would’ve had the same colored header over both columns, and stated “Vote For No More Than FOUR from these two columns” in both.

It’s not like the County of Los Angeles has been insensitive to specifically confusing ballot designs in the past. In June 2018 – when there were 32 candidates for U.S. Senate and 27 for Governor in the state’s top two jungle primary, which caused the candidates to be listed over two pages – the County sent out a special extra notice with the sample ballot reminding voters to only vote for one candidate, because voting for a candidate on each page would lead to their vote being not counted.

Simultaneously on this year’s BMD touch screens, only four candidates were shown at a time, and voters had to click a MORE button to scroll down to the next screen and so on. A notification screen did pop up forcing the voter to acknowledge the MORE button and that there were more than four candidates in that contest. But it was still possible to vote for all open seats without scrolling through all screens to see all candidates – further penalizing those without the good fortune of a high ballot placement.

A simple ‘fail safe’ could’ve been a functionality we are all familiar with when we sign up for something on-line — where you have to check a box to agree you’ve read the Terms and Conditions, but the page forces you to scroll all the way down (and pretend you read thousands of words written by a corporate lawyer) before you can click the box to says ‘yes’. Had this been written into the BMD, at least we’d know all voters saw all choices before casting their votes.

A better democracy

All of this is not to depreciate the votes cast by Santa Monica voters, nor to undermine the legitimacy of the winners. We’ll never know how a differently conducted election would have turned out and we need to move forward. This was the first year that the County implemented VSAP — and hopefully the last local election conducted under COVID-19, before a vaccine is widely distributed among the populace.

What the City Council should do now is direct City Staff to send a letter to the County Registrar’s office — and to the five Los Angeles County Supervisors — raising these issues about VBM and BMD ballot design, and ask them to address them before the next election. Our democracy is worth no less.

A two-part series

Ballot Placement Displacement Part I. December 10, 2020
Ballot Placement Displacement Part II. December 11, 2020

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.