When Voting Rights Go Wrong
There are few safeguards against importing non-local voters into neighborhood council races
By Gary Walker
The emergence of a business-backed candidate slate for the June 5 Venice Neighborhood Council election and an apparent loophole in the definition of who is eligible to vote are raising concerns about ballot integrity.
With a crowded field of nearly 70 candidates for 21 council seats, it’s a challenge for voters to weigh the merits of each candidate. As Election Day approaches, however, some are drawing lines between slow-growth and more business-friendly candidates, with attitudes toward development a key issues.
An email sent to an unknown number of local business operators is not only encouraging support for a prescribed slate of candidates, it also calls on business owners to provide employees and “others” with documentation that would allow them to vote as Venice stakeholders.
Eligible voters in neighborhood council elections include anyone who lives, works or owns property in the council area as well as those who claim to have a “substantial interest” in the neighborhood, such as affiliations with schools, churches and nonprofits.
Citywide Neighborhood Council Elections Director Jay Handel said oversight of “employee letters” — an employer-authored certification of employment that allows their workers to vote in neighborhood council elections even if they live outside the area — has always been part of the voting system, for better or worse.
The major concern, he said, is that there aren’t solid failsafe measures in place to make sure someone coming in to vote with an employee letter in hand is actually an employee of that business.
“For years we have had a very loose election system. Can I prove that [anyone with a letter] works in Venice? No,” Handal acknowledged. “There are no safeguards. Am I concerned about it? Of course I am. But those are the rules.”
The slate email circulating in Venice appears to encourage business managers to write letters for people who aren’t direct employees, including vendors.
“Here is the list of acceptable voters. You need to get as many of your friend [sic] and employees to vote on June 5 at Oakwood Community Center. Please look at the sample letter and generate one for your employees and others if necessary. Put it on letterhead and give it to employees and vendors,” the email states.
Carl Lambert, owner of Venice Breeze Suites and other commercial properties in Venice, told The Argonaut that he is supporting the candidates on the slate because he believes they will “provide every Venetian due process and a fair hearing.”
Former California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who lives in Venice, said it’s reasonable to worry about a voter eligibility mechanism without safeguards against abuse, especially in this coming election.
“The stakes are very high, because the issues of homelessness and development are at the [forefront] of the election here in Venice,” said Bowen. “If this were an election at the state level and I was still secretary of state, I would run this in a much different way.”
Handal said the Los Angeles City Council had an opportunity to tighten up neighborhood council voter eligibility controls when similar concerns came up years ago but didn’t act.
“My feeling is there have to be changes. I think the City Council needs to better define what community interests are. If you’re going to allow letters with no way to verify if the person is an employee, chances are people are going be skeptical [about the outcome of an election],” he said.
Bowen did note, however, that when signing an election card voters are declaring under penalty of perjury that they are eligible to vote in that election.
Venice Neighborhood Council Parliamentarian Ivan Spiegel, also an independent elections inspector for the city department that oversees neighborhood councils, is concerned about the potential for voter fraud.
“When special interests come in and try to take over a neighborhood council, you lose respect because people will feel that they’re no longer represented,” Spiegel said.
With concerns about large-scale development and gentrification driving local political discussion, the chair of the council’s Land Use and Planning Committee is perhaps the most influential seat on the board — one that could set the tone for how the council treats development proposals.
Current Land Use and Planning Committee Chair Robin Rudisill is facing multiple challenges to her reelection bid.
Architect Matthew Royce and accountant Thomas Sauer are also running for the seat, while land use consultant Brian Silveira qualified for
the ballot but told The Argonaut he’s dropped out of the race.
Prior to Rudisill’s election in 2014, many said the council was too amenable to large-scale developments.
But now some are accusing the current board of being too hostile to developers.
Lambert said the controversy over development is not about overdevelopment, but about “fairness of process.”
Royce is among the 10 candidates listed in the slate backed by Lambert.
“My primary issue as a candidate is the lack of housing that regular folks can afford in Venice,” Royce said. “It would be far better to be able to purchase a smaller home for less than a million dollars, or rent an apartment and only be spending about a third of your income on housing costs.”
Royce declined to elaborate his thoughts on Dan Abrams’ Abbot Kinney Hotel project and the failed 1414 Main St. hotel proposal. As for controversy surrounding the Gjusta restaurant and bakery on Sunset Avenue, Royce said he didn’t “know enough about the specifics of the Gjusta situation to properly comment on it.”
Rudisill has voted in support of the Abbot Kinney Hotel, against 1414 Main, and recused herself from voting on Gjusta.
Sauer refused to answer questions, except to write in an email: “No comment. Please end status quo neighbors!”