Chaos at the West Hollywood Polls: 'Rough Guesstimates' Fly on Election Night, Provisional Ballots Overestimated by 130 Votes

Shady democracy in L.A.'s land of the gays
Shady democracy in L.A.'s land of the gays
California Progress Report

The polls may be closed, but West Hollywood City Hall is once again shielding a rain of rage from angry activists and City Council candidates who want to know why the City Clerk's office announced that approximately 930 provisional ballots remained on Tuesday night, then changed that number to 800 on Wednesday afternoon.

It's a longshot to guess someone's trying to tamper with ballots, but after what seems to have been such a haphazard voting and counting process, there's really no way to know for sure.

"We weren't really counting [the provisional ballots]," says City Clerk Tom West. "We hadn't added them up. We hadn't really sat there counting them with a calculator."

But why not? The West Hollywood election attracted attention from as far east as the New York Times, and was even compared to cesspools as extreme as Bell (and, uh, Egypt). The delicate number of votes it would take to overturn what has become a small-town regime is far more significant than its count -- so election officials knew they had to be at top form.

Still, West says he made a "rough guesstimate," which was then broadcast over the city's public-access channel as a "courtesy" to voters, according to City Clerk Assistant Corey Schaffer.

"We had some rough numbers down," says West. "About 300 over here, 400 over here, another 100-something over there. And I went too high."

One-hundred-and-thirty votes could be the difference between four more years of incumbent John Heilman and a fresh term for challenger Steve Martin -- whose leadership would mean a very opposite direction for the city. Martin needs 333 more votes to catch up to Heilman in the hotly contested race for City Council.

Understandably, the six losing candidates are supremely sketched right now.

Mito Aviles, who's second to last with 919 votes, says he doesn't understand why the city didn't use the 11 precinct officers' ballot tallies to get a more accurate count, instead of misleading voters with the unusually high estimate.

He also says he's worried that "there are provisional ballots that will just be [at City Hall] over the weekend" -- he'd be more comfortable if the ballots were kept in a consulting company's possession, instead of at the home-away-from-home of three incumbents.

(When Aviles went to the City Clerk's office today to inquire about the ballots, West told him they were being kept in a "locked file room," but that Aviles could not see them because "we're working back there.")

Frightening, in a city where elected officials and their employees have a deep track record of keeping themselves insular, familiar and very non-transparent to all those outside the clique.

And the night's story keeps changing slightly: Today, Schaffer tells the Weekly that there are exactly 801 ballots still to be counted (WTF? Did they just find one on the floor or something?), and that the total includes absentee ballots, which are normally not grouped with provisionals.

But he also says this rumor mill of accusations is the reason City Hall won't release a final ballot count per precinct until Monday, when a professional ballot counter can come in to take the final tally.

"There are lots of rumors flying around, and I'm not going to say who, but I might be on the phone with one of them," Schaffer says.

John D'Amico campaign consultant Renee Nahum, who was going around to precincts and poll-checking for D'Amico, says she doesn't think anything especially fishy is going on here, but does confirm that the election-day procedure was a total mess.

"[Precinct officers] were counting really bad," she says. "They were way behind. ... If that's the one place they were getting their numbers, I could see where it went wrong."

Longtime WeHo resident Lauren Meister says she was equally confused by election proceedings. She was in the auditorium where the ballots were being counted, and by her estimate, there were over 15 people available to count ballots.

"What else would they be doing?" she says. "The counting [of verified ballots] was done by a machine. So where were [the provisional and absentee ballots], and why weren't they counted by the people who were all sitting there?"

On election night, Schaffer announced the "930" estimate -- already strange for its precision -- twice. The first time, he modified it with the word "approximately," and the second time, he didn't.

"Hindsight is wonderful," says West. "Maybe we should have said 900ish. ... It was late, it was a long day."

Unfortunately, all this bleariness may drag the controversial city election out far longer than is healthy, distracting from the need for a less opulent credit-card policy and -- most importantly -- all the city's actual problems.

In other words: Just another day in WeHo. Now how 'bout that tsunami?

[@simone_electra/swilson@laweekly.com]


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