Charter Amendment Campaign Relies on Bogus Turnout Number

John Shallman, strategist for Citizens for Increased Voter Participation
John Shallman, strategist for Citizens for Increased Voter Participation
Shallman Communications

It's been a rough week for Citizens for Increased Voter Participation, the committee behind Charter Amendments 1 and 2. First, the committee had to retract a claim that Mayor Eric Garcetti supports the measures, which are intended to boost turnout at city and school board elections by moving them to even years.

Now the campaign is taking heat for an inaccurate turnout figure in one of its mailers. The mailer claims that in the March 2013 mayoral primary election, turnout was 16 percent. The figure appears next to the words "embarrassingly low," paraphrasing a quote from L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez.

"Eighty-four percent of L.A.'s registered voters didn't bother to vote," the mailer states, quoting Lopez. The quote appears next to an L.A. Times logo, which mailers often use to bolster their credibility.

At the time the column was written, about 90,000 ballots had yet to be counted. In an email, Lopez said the 16 percent figure was updated in later reports.

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The final figure ended up being 21 percent — not great, but not nearly as bad as the mailer claims.

"Another day, another lie by promoters of the deceptive and dangerous charter amendments," said Hans Johnson, spokesman for Save Our City Elections, which is urging a "no" vote on the charter amendments. "Their drive to take away our stand-alone local elections and change our city charter is fueled by special interests from out of state. That's who's funding erroneous mailers like this, in which, once again, they lie to L.A. voters."

The mailer came from consultant John Shallman, who also has been embroiled in controversies in a school board race and a city council campaign this cycle. Shallman's spokesman, Dave Jacobson, struck a defiant tone when asked about the inaccuracy.

"The only thing wrong with our mailer is we should have used the abysmal 8.9 percent turnout of 2011 instead of the slightly less pathetic turnout of 2013," Jacobson said. "Other than that, we stand by the accuracy of our mailer quoting the excellent reporting of the L.A. Times."

It's not clear from the statement whether Shallman stands by the accuracy of the inaccurate figure or not. However, it is true that turnout in the 2011 runoff in a single school board district was 8.9 percent, so if the mailer had said that, it would have been accurate.

Save Our City Elections also has attacked Shallman for "hypocrisy" because he stated in 2013 that he supports having elections in odd years. (Shallman maintains that he did not oppose even-year elections, though he clearly did.)

In any case, there is no rule forbidding him from changing his mind. Shallman's firm also has switched sides in school board races, having previously worked for teachers unions before joining up with charter school advocates.

Update: Looks like Shallman is backing down, and blaming the Times.

"Being off by a few percentage points because of an error by the L.A. Times does not change the fundamental fact that voter turnout in odd-year elections is dismal," Jacobson said in a follow-up statement. 

Of course, the Times was using the only number available at the time. Shallman was using an inaccurate number even though the accurate number is now available.

"It's like the weatherman in Chicago saying it's 4 degrees outside instead of 9," Jacobson continued. "It's still awfully cold and you should put on a jacket or you'll freeze to death."


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