[Editorial] Next Generation Online Voting Is Right for Neighborhood Councils

Fred Mariscal

Recently, two city agencies moved toward implementing online voting, starting next year, for Los Angeles’ 95 neighborhood councils, which is now waiting for mayor review and approval.

It’s interesting to note that full citizenry participation within the neighborhood council system has taken some time to develop, akin to the time it took for many parts of Latin America, and in particular Mexico, to fully democratize.

In the late 1990s, Los Angeles was facing a crisis as discontented neighborhoods across the city who were expressing displeasure of under representation. The neighborhood councils were then created in the hope of bringing more Angelenos together: residents, homeowners, renters, students, undocumented, rich, poor and the homeless.

But sometimes it seems just the opposite is happening. Today’s neighborhood councils tend to have frequently reoccurring boardmembers and little voter turnout at polling locations for council elections.

The Dept. of Neighborhood Empowerment—a city agency that oversees the neighborhood councils—promotes that they were formed to improve city services and as an experiment in citizen-engaged democracy. Online voting is an example of what the councils were created for: to better engage Angelenos and it’s an experiment in democracy all neighborhood councils should embrace.

Some, however, have expressed concern about the safety and veracity of online voting for neighborhood councils. While these concerns are justified, they are overblown. In my view, some current councilors are afraid online voting could possibly mean they would be voted out of office, as certainly more ballots would be cast thereby ensuring a diversity of elected neighborhood councilmembers.

The vendor that has been chosen to manage and oversee neighborhood council online voting, “Everyone Counts,” has nearly two decades of experience in successfully deploying secure, reliable and transparent elections all over the world, delivering both online and best practice paper ballots to millions of voters in over 165 countries. I, for one, believe they can do the same here in Los Angeles.

How can we truly represent a community when on election day we only get 10, eight and sometimes even one vote? How can neighborhood councils be truly representative and effective at lobbying City Hall with such a dismal civic engagement? Neighborhood councils can’t continue to function this way.

When I first ran for a seat on the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council in 2010, I won by one vote. The Los Angeles City Clerk certified the election. But still the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council would not seat me on the board, saying the City Clerk couldn’t verify the voters’ identifications who had voted in the election.

Really? This kind of problem will be removed with online voting by requiring voters self affirm or provide documentation they live, work, own property or have a stake in the community. Voters will receive secret voting codes, once verified, to cast a ballot. Telephone voting, as well as the traditional in-person voting at a voting location, will also be available. Neighborhood councils have been given an option to decide if they want to participate.

The voting, expected to cost $552,000 will be funded by unused neighborhood council funds from 2013-2014 that would normally roll over in the city’s general fund.

Online voting is a must as neighborhood council’s grow in esteem and influence throughout the city. Having such a way for stakeholders to vote is vital to Los Angeles becoming a better city, a 21st century city, a more innovative city that can set an example nationwide.

Fred Mariscal is a current Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council boardmember and was a candidate in the recent Los Angeles City Council District 4 election to replace Tom LaBonge. 

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