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Collectioneering: A Field Guide

ERIC PREVEN'S NOTEBOOK

ERIC PREVEN’S NOTEBOOK - There was a lot of optimism on November 9, as dozens of candidates diligently filed paperwork and took historic pictures or videos as they kicked off campaigns to save the City. The field of 2020 LA City election candidates had been invited to Piper Tech, an enormous loading dock near Union Station to collect fresh stacks of signature petitions for the March 3, 2020 ballot.  

Each of the 100 three-paged petitions that are explained in thirteen languages has room for twenty signatures, so if a candidate is so inclined, they could gather and submit up to 2000 signatures in total. There is a more attainable option: If you plunk down 500 valid signatures and pay a $300 processing fee, the City Clerk will stick you on the ballot. It works. I've done it more than once.   

To be honest it's kind of like a raging party at the disco with DJ Krekorian...

 

DJ Krekorian: Be Silent!

 

Generally, signature requirements are intended to ensure that candidates have a minimum level of support from the community they aim to represent. The purpose is to prevent overly crowded ballots, and frivolous candidacies, and to ensure that candidates have at least some demonstrated local support. 

But the truth is getting 500 signatures serves as an impediment to access for regular citizens who want to participate in our electoral process. 

Practically, speaking obtaining 500 qualifying ballot signatures in 25 days over Thanksgiving is about money, not equity and access, and as it currently stands there is no due process in the signature validation process.  

The year that I turned in the exact same number of signatures as Council member Nury Martinez had to get on the ballot in my Council District 2, which has now changed to Council District 4, Martinez made it, and the Clerk reported that I failed to gather the sufficient number of valid petition signatures.   

Naturally, I banged the desk and looked into the work being done down at the validation station at Piper Tech, and was troubled enough to go to court.

I argued before Hon. Mitchell L. Beckloff, that the electors who had signed for me but were rejected behind closed doors, were being disenfranchised by an unconstitutional process. My not making it onto the ballot that year, was due to an unconstitutional validation process, I argued, with no appeal process!  I provided numerous specific examples of valid residents who had signed but were invalidated by the clerk erroneously.  In doing so, I punctured the presumption of regularity of the City Clerk (Hello, Wolcott!)

 

County Executive Officer in a flesh-colored outfit with a single-use plastic bottle behind her.

We all hope Judge Beckloff is feeling better and going to court I learned that higher courts have upheld far more stringent signature requirements than the city council’s version both in California and across the country. The constitutionality and legality of De La Fuente versus Padilla from July 2019, Ninth Circuit, unanimous was upheld.

Nonetheless, a candidate requirement to obtain 500 valid in-district signatures for Los Angeles City Council elections is wrong-headed.  It dramatically benefits incumbents or incumbent-like organizers (Hi, Hugo, Hi Eunisses) and the shady signature collection racket, that has become a lucrative big business.

The importance of accessibility and inclusivity in our democratic process cannot be understated, yet our windbag incumbents remain silent on meaningful reforms that would help level the playing field for newcomers.  

Think of the impact of more proposed council districts and more candidates on this process. In a word, cha-ching.  The business will expand exponentially. Do we need six more districts of candidates gathering 500 sorry 800 each?

According to insiders and experts, a candidate should be prepared to collect 800 signatures to get 500 good ones. The LA Times reported that 35% of the signatures gathered were deemed invalid by the Clerk.  The validation, actually invalidation, is done by a crew of part-time workers who have been brought in special by the City Clerk’s office.   

I examined this group a bit and learned that they are mostly longtime civil servants happy to get time off from working at their day job at the county (for Hilda Solis) or the City of Gardena to make some side income.  This work is done by a mix of workers many are the same checkers year in and year out. Loyal soldiers in the fight for democracy. * 

A number of the very same candidates who were so excited at the Piper Tech kickoff returned in disbelief when they learned that only 488 of the 750 signatures that they had spent countless hours collecting passed muster. 

"Sorry, there is no appeal process."

This 500-signature requirement hurts grassroots candidates the most and those with limited resources are forced to hire collectors, which can be very costly and shady. Some signature gatherers use deceptive tactics that can undermine the integrity of the election process and erode public trust in the political system. 

Other jurisdictions, like the County Board of Supervisors, the State Assembly, and the LA Superior Court Judges all have signature requirements that call for less than 100 valid signatures.  Reducing the 500-signature requirement for city council seats will encourage a more diverse pool of candidates to participate in City Council elections.  

The importance of diverse representation in city government is exactly what the redistricting fiasco is all about. Prospective candidates should not be asked and required to figure out which district certain electors live in when the maps have been scrambled.  Newcomers need to get the message out about their campaign and not spend all of their time validating people’s signatures to be sure they are CD4 or CD2. 

The process of ensuring the validity of signatures does require training and is also ripe for possible fraudulent behavior.  When I examined my own petitions with a clerk representative and (an armed guard over my shoulder), I spotted numerous mistakes and plenty to hide.

The process is a cumbersome mechanism that focuses on identifying people's voter details, yet 300 of 800 signatures gathered are found to be invalid.  This is not a good use of time in a world where your DMV registration will get you registered to vote.  We can do better with less.

The City Council should move quickly to amend the City charter and lower the required number of signatures required to get on the ballot.  

The Los Angeles City Council, who have been grappling with endless scandals should make a motion to amend the charter to require 60 valid signatures.  Such a change will promote a more inclusive and vibrant democratic process in Los Angeles. 

Signed, Eric Preven

 

Historic Kickoff:

The assumption that people want to sign for a candidate that they may never have heard of by affixing their signature to a document including a line for name, address, birthday*, and today's date, is optimistic.   

The Script:

Here's one approach:   

"Greetings, Hi. I'm Eric Preven, a Studio City resident."   

"I live nearby/above Carpenter Avenue School on Reklaw Drive."   

"We're having a city election coming up in March" [I draw attention by putting my finger on the petition where it says City Council] 

"This is a petition for me. . .I'm the candidate, Eric Preven" [I slide my finger over to my name]   

"And I'm gathering signatures from people who live and vote in this area, this general area. . ." [I slide my hand down the signatures and then flip, like Vanna White, my clipboard which has a map of the district on the back.] 

"So, if you live and vote in this area. . .which means you are registered in [I allow time to review the map and say out loud] Studio City, Valley Village, North Hollywood, Valley Glen. . . 

'This is about a choice on the ballot. It's so important. I've been on my neighborhood council, and I've pressed for some low-hanging fruit ideas... I got both factions of our community to agree that a restroom, [I point to the one at Fryman] like this. . .is needed at the Metro Red Line Universal station.  I mean, “What is the expectation? "   

"The point is, that that mobile pitstop initiative has been on Krekorian's desk for a year. I'm ready to turn up the heat." 

The process of gathering signatures is an eye-opening experience, but not necessarily an earbud removing one. 

People are busy. And cranky.   

What to expect 

People of all districts do not agree on much, but one thing they certainly do agree on is that the appropriate reaction to the sight of a clipboard in a person's hands is to Run!   

I have witnessed a woman hike aggressively up a muddy slope to avoid an encounter with a dude trying to get her signature.   

One person pivoted around a corner at Westfield Mall so quickly, that she nearly marched her baby carriage down the up escalator. 

The most common responses. 

Overwhelming excitement at not being in the district. A flush of warmth as no further action is required and yet somehow the guilt "at least they stopped to check" is lifted. 

Evasive, as noted above some people will defy Vision Zero to avoid an interaction. Always look both ways. 

Dismissal, mouthing "I'm good."  "On the phone" (pointing at earbuds).  "No thank you." Or "Not happening."  

Shaming, sometimes a gatherer can be scolded for even bringing up the possibility, "I come here to escape, you asshole." 

Allergic. One alumnus from the University of Michigan, my alma mater, surprised me with, "I don't sign. Period."  

Answer: Fair enough, exclamation point! 

Ignorance. "But I don't know anything about you?"   

Answer: We're both Democrats, and it's important that we have a choice. 

Preference. One person (out of +/- 3,000 interviewed) said, "I like Krekorian."  

Answer: So do I, signing provides a choice on the ballot. 

Another said, "I'm a Republican." 

Answer:  That's fine, I'm a self-hating Democrat. 

In my opinion, no matter how obnoxious a possible signer might be, a candidate should never challenge their negativity. 

Two can be one too many! 

One afternoon, when the electors were nibbling quite nicely at Fryman Canyon, a man in a NY Yankee hat, dressed in black, drove up in a Cadillac SUV.  

He was also with a clipboard and passing a petition around for Ayinde Jones, an attorney with a glossy handout from Sherman Oaks. I glanced around, briefly and decided it was best to leave the location.   

I saw this professional signature gatherer a second time, a day later. He tried to drill me for relevant local issues, as he's from a different neighborhood.   

It's a bit like fishing, two different petition gatherers at the same spot can be unsettling. The polite thing to do is to walk off voluntarily -- so that's what I did. But this process is integral to our system of governance and though the 500-signature requirement is too high and should be changed, candidates should be given wide latitude to do this important work.  

The gathering period from November 9 to December 4 includes three of the busiest shopping days of the year and it used to rain around that time, nixing at least a few days due to weather.  

When I showed up at the Westfield Fashion Square mall to gather, I was quickly surrounded by security guards who took me by golf cart to their leader, Hakop, a young duty manager who had attended an LAPD event that Krekorian had blown hard at. He'd googled me while I was being voluntarily taken across the parking lot to Westfield jail, to get things straightened out.  

There, as the sun set in the Valley, I regaled Hakop with stories from the trenches about how under Bob Blumenfield's esteemed leadership, Westfield had effectively cut the line at City Hall by paying robust expediting fees to DOT, Planning, etc.   

Hakop slapped down a First Amendment application and granted me permission to gather.

Collectioneers: 

The people who gather the signatures come in all shapes and sizes and cars, lured by the prospect of lucrative part-time work with no overhead. One owner says he looks for people who have "a salesman's personality. You have to be outgoing, ready to talk, and you have to make people comfortable signing something they never had heard about."  Effective workers "have to be highly motivated and not afraid of rejection."

Most collectors carry several petitions at a time; five is normal, and 10 is not unusual. There was a man in a shopping center with a card table and an ironing board on which he had arranged 17 petitions. "You have to keep 'em laughing when you have a lot," he said. "You tell them the next one they sign will guarantee they can sue you for too many petitions! And keeping you so long.”

Cookie?

 

(Eric Preven is a longtime community activist and is a contributor to CityWatch. The opinions of Mr. Preven are not necessarily those of CityWatchLA.com.)