City Embracing Costly Online Voting for Neighborhood Councils in 2019

CORRECTION: In our story, we indicate the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council will hold their previously scheduled election in 2018 and then another in 2019. In fact, the council has only recommended to the city that scenario for 2019.

The city hopes to spend over $2.3 million to promote and have online neighborhood council voting in 2019, according to multiple city officials.

The Los Angeles City Clerk, who manages all city elections, has submitted a 2018-2019 request for $1,358,000 to manage the elections and further build out online voting for all of the city’s 96 neighborhood councils, completing a 2016 test run, in which 35 experimented with the process.

Additionally, EmpowerLA, the city department that oversees the city’s neighborhood councils has budgeted another $950,000 in neighborhood council election outreach and advertising that will kick off in 2018 if approved.

According to city officials, online voting is a way to increase voter turnout, worth the investment and is needed to meet generational shifts, as more and more people use cell phones and computers to conduct most any kind of activity.

“There are people that just will not go to a polling location open only four hours on [one] day,” said Grayce Liu, EmpowerLA, referring to the short time frame many neighborhood councils have on election day. … “[Online voting] is the future.”

The concept of online voting for neighborhood council elections is controversial after 35 neighborhood councils gave voters the option of online voting at home or via a tablet at polling locations. The results of the trial were mixed.

Half of the participating neighborhood councils saw an increase in voter turnout during the online trial, while the other half saw declines.

Experts say the more candidates on a ballot, the greater the turnout. But according to the results of the 2016 online experiment, the quantity of candidates was not a factor.

During the 2016 experiment, according to city documents, some voters were reluctant to electronically provide the sensitive documentation that many councils require, showing proof of their “stakeholder” status and allowing them to vote. This prompted the city to create “pop-up polls,” where city staffers were on hand to verify documents and allow voters to cast an online vote.

Additionally, some voters needed more assistance than expected to complete online registration and voting, and the ballot, in 2016, included every neighborhood council race, which forced voters to have to scroll through it—sometimes multiple times—causing long lines and delays.

The online 2016 experiment was “not a homerun,” said Liu, “but we learned a lot.”

Less than 1% of Angelenos vote in neighborhood council elections, according to an analysis of election results from 2005 to 2016.

Whether to offer online voting to all neighborhood councils became comingled with the city moving such elections from even to odd numbered years, in order to not conflict with city elections.

Ultimately, it was decided nearly all the councils will have their next election in 2019, except for a handful of councils, including the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, which opted to hold their previously planned elections in 2018 as well as in 2019.

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