City News

Neighborhood Councils Urge City Hall To Allow Online Voting

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Fri, Jan 29, 2010 at 10:01 AM

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Faced with generally abysmal voter turnout, a handful of neighborhood councils are trying to allow their "stakeholders" to vote online or by phone.

But "American Idol"-style balloting has few fans at the City Clerk's office, which is in charge of running 89 neighborhood council elections between March and May.

"It's not going to happen," said Holly Wolcott, the clerk's executive officer. "The ship is already in motion."

The idea got started in Silver Lake - home to one of the more nettlesome councils - and has since spread to East Hollywood and the Pico council, in the Mid-City area. Everyone Counts, a San Diego-based e-voting firm, would set up a website that stakeholders could use to cast their ballots. For those without computers could vote over the phone. The cost per council would run about $10,000.

One of the concerns is fraud, especially considering that pretty much anyone can vote in these elections, including those who work or shop in the neighborhood, non-citizens, and, in some cases, 14-year-olds. But the technical consultants have assured the councils that they can set up security systems to prevent fraud.

Another problem is cost. The City Council has slashed the budget for this year's council elections from $4 million to $1.9 million, which has forced the clerk's office to consolidate voting at one precinct per council and to eliminate almost all mail-in balloting. Planting its thumb firmly in City Hall's eye, Silver Lake offered to spend $5,000 of its meager $45,000 budget to pay for e-voting. (Unimpressed, the clerk's office suggested spending the money on outreach instead.)

"The whole idea of a neighborhood council is that we don't have to go along with what City Hall says," says Renee Nahum, of the Silver Lake council. "This is the perfect place to experiment with a pilot program in elections."

Everyone Counts, which ran a neighborhood board election in Honolulu and a parliamentary election for Australian soldiers in Iraq, hopes to use the L.A. neighborhood council elections to establish a foothold on the mainland. The elections market is controlled by a small handful of companies, and Everyone Counts is aiming to win market share by undercutting its competitors on price.

By running an election online, the company saves the expense of drafting and printing hundreds of distinct ballot types. In Honolulu, where the country's first online vote was held last year, Everyone Counts cut the election cost from $350,000 to less than $100,000.

It wouldn't be so simple in L.A., because any online system would have to coexist with paper balloting, at least at first. And still, not everyone is on board. At Silver Lake, a few council members argued there was no point pursuing the idea if the City Clerk wouldn't go along. And in East Hollywood, a few council members were sufficiently uneasy about fraud - and, seemingly, about losing - that they voted against the idea.

But majorities in each of the three councils found the arguments in favor of boosting turnout compelling enough to back the idea. In East Hollywood's last election, 227 people turned out in a community with 53,000 stakeholders.

"My desire is to open it up as much as possible," said David Bell, the president of the East Hollywood council. "We have no power and no money. If someone wants to come vote for the neighborhood council, let them vote."

Still, time is running short for this year's elections, and the clerk's office has indicated it would rather not deal with the issue until 2012. Last week, Councilman Paul Koretz authored a motion encouraging the clerk's office to implement pilot voting programs this year. But without firm directive, the clerk's office seems likely to swat the idea aside.

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