How we did it
In November, Humboldt State University journalism professor Marcy Burstiner was in Spain. She didn't get her absentee ballot until a couple of weeks before the election. The last of three seats for the Northern Humboldt Unified School District was decided by 21 votes, but her vote wasn't included. Her ballot was late. That made her wonder: How often are races that close?
In January, her investigative reporting class looked at 10 years of election data from across the state compiled by the California Election Data Archives in Sacramento. The answer was this: More often than you might expect. You can find the raw data here: http://www.csus.edu/isr/reports/california_elections/
The students remained skeptical. After all, what difference can a race for a community services district or city council or school board really make? To find out they interviewed candidates who'd won and lost by close margins, experts on the voting process and Humboldt County voters. This is what they found: In small towns, where a handful of elected people control your water system, or your kid's education, or determine how much you will pay in taxes, it can make a big difference.
The students who worked on the project were: Adrian Barbuzza, Marguerite Boissonnault, Ian Bradley, Dane Cluff, Retzel Fabillar, John Ferrara, Sebastian Hedberg, Ronele Herd, Norma Huerta, Dennis Lara-Mejia, Dennis Israel Lefrak, Jared Margen, Shareen McFall, Manuel Orbegozo IV, Marissa Papanek, Bryn Robertson, Jessica Snow, Lauren Voigtlander, Jake Wetzstein and Alexander Woodard.
Rick Walsh has worked for three different companies that owned the town of Scotia, where he was raised. His father was a millright, who first joined the Pacific Lumber Co. in 1954. In 2007 Pacific Lumber went bankrupt and the company town's future became uncertain.
For the first time, Scotia residents had to figure out how to operate their water supply, sewer treatment, fire protection, street lighting, even their theatre and bank. In a special election in August 2011, the town voted to form a community services district. Then 63, Walsh ran for the board. He'd lived in Scotia most of his life. He left back in 1967 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a dental technician. He returned home almost a decade later to settle down and married his wife, who now works for Scotia Elementary School, the same school he attended as a kid. Together they raised a son and three daughters.
Now Walsh feared someone would buy the town wholesale, and once again take it out of the control of the people who lived there.
He tied with mechanic Kevin Laloli to beat homemaker Carolyn DePucci by one vote in an election that 156 out of 307 registered voters in Scotia skipped. Walsh and Laloli joined a board made up of a fire chief, a plumber and a food service manager.
"I would just like to keep it all afloat," Walsh said. "I'd like to make it work, or at least have some say in how it all goes down. It's a little bit daunting."
Walsh is one of at least 39 Californians who won an election by a single vote between 2003 and 2012, according to an analysis of roughly 11,000 races. In 2012, the latest year for which statewide data is available, seven people won office by a single vote in city council races in Kings, Placer, and Santa Clara counties, school board races in Solano and Siskiyou counties, and a community services district race in Shasta County.
Along with the 39 single-vote winners, 50 local measures won or lost their required majority by one vote. That's 46 races in which every vote for the victorious candidate, or for or against a measure, decided the contest. Add them together and, over the course of 10 years, 45,541 California voters — 138 from Humboldt County — singlehandedly decided an election.
Widen the margin a little, and you find even more people who won office by slim leads and even more voters who helped them do it. Over that same 10-year period, 672 people won by 25 or fewer votes and 260 out of about 3,900 measures won or lost their required majority by 25 or fewer votes. In each of these races the result might have changed had more voters shown up at the polls. But many people don't vote in June, off-year, and special elections and the few who do often skip small, local races on the ballot.
Some say they don't know enough about the positions or measures. Do you know exactly what your community services district does? Many voters skip elections because voting can seem pointless, said Melissa Michelson, a political science professor at Menlo College in Redwood City. "One of the reasons that people don't vote is that they don't think their vote is going to make a difference," she said. "You know, the winner usually wins by a pretty comfortable margin, and so, why bother?"
But the more people withhold their votes, the greater the chance that those who do vote will decide the small races by super slim margins. At the heart of these races are political conflicts that run through Humboldt County: whether residents control their infrastructure; whether the government should spend taxpayer money to protect individual homes; how our schools deal with problem students.
In the winter of 2005, driving rain and rising water threatened four homes near the Mad River at the end of School Road in McKinleyville. Homeowners rallied to save their homes and began pleading with local government agencies to do something about it. One option, said Jack Durham, editor of the Mad River Union, was to do nothing. "What's the government's responsibility to save your house?" Durham said. "That's your private property."
Javan Reid wanted to help those homeowners. Originally from North Carolina, the 61-year-old minister of the Grace Good Shepherd Church, had just been reelected to the board of directors for the McKinleyville Community Services District. He won by a margin of 27 votes in an election which drew only 54 percent of registered voters.
The McKinleyville CSD is a water and sewer district with no jurisdiction over the erosion problem, but is the defacto city government in the unincorporated town.
Reid worried that the county, which had the authority, would ignore the problem. "[I ran for office] to make the community a better place for everyone, for the people of the town, and for the children," Reid said.
He convinced his fellow board members to show up unannounced to a county board of supervisors meeting in Eureka to demand that the problem be addressed. Nothing like that had been done before. The show of unity worked; the county invested $1.2 million in a project to save the bank along with those four private homes.
Reid almost did not run in the 2005 election. He'd served previously on the board and believed that he would be leaving the community's welfare in good hands. But he decided to challenge local ranch owner Dennis Mayo.
Close elections happen more often when voters stay away. That was the case when Amy Barnes beat Nicole Chase in Fieldbrook by a single vote for the elementary school board in 2009. The election drew only 174 of the 660 registered voters in the district. "No one really has the time to read up on the possible differences in views of a school board member," Barnes said. "But the decisions that the board makes may directly impact their child."
The principal had asked her to run, but with so small a lead Barnes felt she should step aside.
"I felt bad," she said, "and called my opponent the next day and asked her, 'Do you want it?'
Barnes wound up serving for two terms. She helped interview potential teachers and superintendents, and oversaw the budget, healthcare and insurance for the district, which serves 140 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. She said that decisions small school boards make set the tone for schools' learning environments. "Things like what teacher your student might have for fourth grade, how money is allocated in the school budget or how important is technology to the school," she said. "What about pushing for a Spanish program? Or drama or art? Is it important to spend dollars on classroom aides or on site improvement? That's pretty important."
Special education teacher Dana Silvernale felt compelled to run for reelection to the Northern Humboldt Unified School District Board of Trustees last November to try to change what she thought was a harsh disciplinary policy. She won her second term by a margin of 21 votes; initial election tallies had her losing the race to her fellow incumbent, Mike Pigg.
Since in office, she said she has pushed for a more proactive and positive support system for high school students with behavioral issues.
"I am the only board member that's advocating for these changes," she said. "I've been working and collaborating with our administrators to improve support systems for these students."
On June 18, school administrators will meet to consider ways to make the policy more therapeutic, proactive and preventative. Silvernale said she hopes they will consider finding alternatives to out-of-school suspensions. "We need to be bringing our students back into school, not sending them out of it," she said.
Like Silvernale, Rick Walsh initially found himself losing his 2011 race for the Scotia Community Services District. Both Walsh and Kevin Laloli trailed Carolyn DePucci by a single vote. But one person had both voted for DePucci and written in her name on the ballot, resulting in its disqualification and turning the race in favor of Walsh and Laloli. In the next two years it took for the SCSD to be officially instated, Laloli and another board member, James Barnes, moved away, leaving a three-member board.
Since then, Walsh has traveled to Sacramento, Santa Rosa and Fort Bragg for seminars on running a community services district. "We have to govern so people invest and the town doesn't die," Walsh said. For Walsh, the fight to save Scotia — the town where he grew up and went to grade school — isn't just about representing the 69 people who voted for him in 2011, it's also personal. "I've just been living here so long," he said. "Scotia is really unique just on the face of it. I have a lot of good memories of the 1950s and '60s when it was owned by a company that took care of its employees. There were company picnics and stuff like that. I always refer to myself as a 'Scotia kid.' It's just a good town."
If the board members can't manage the town effectively, Scotia runs the risk of losing its independence. Walsh doesn't want it to become part of Rio Dell, which sits just across the Eel River. "Scotia is unique," said Walsh, "it ought to have a chance to map out its own future. It's about giving people who love Scotia the chance to make this town viable."
Editor's note: Former Fieldbrook Elementary School District Trustee Amy Barnes is currently employed as a graphic designer for the Journal.
If you needed a job, you might have considered running against Dave Parris for county coroner in June. You needed to be a U.S. citizen with a valid driver's license and no felony convictions. Parris, first appointed to the post in 2009, is running uncontested. The job pays almost $105,000 to oversee autopsies and death investigations, and to help families deal with the process of death.
"I take care of all property that belongs to the deceased until we find out who to give them to," Parris said, adding that property often includes pets. "I feed cats and dogs every day."
Coroner is one of seven uncontested positions on the June ballot, with John Bartholomew for tax collector, Joseph Mellett for auditor and Mari Wilson for assessor all running unopposed. Those jobs each pay $113,000 a year. Uncontested races confirm to many voters that their vote doesn't matter. But faced with that lack of choice, some pencil in their own.
For her part, Wilson is relieved to have no opposition four years after winning a hotly contested race.
"My husband and I financed a lot of it ourselves because I didn't want to be obligated to anyone," said Wilson, who has worked in the assessor's office since 1987. In 2010, she ran against real estate appraiser Jon Brooks and rancher Johanna Rodoni, the widow of former County Supervisor Roger Rodoni, who took over his term after he died in a car accident in 2008. Rodoni raised almost $54,000 for her campaign, and Brooks raised $31,000. Compare that to the $6,000 that Wilson raised, mostly from her own savings, according to news articles from this paper and others at the time. The assessor determines whether a property is eligible for taxation and its taxable value. Money poured in from businesses and property owners who wanted looser restrictions on development.
Humboldt County Superintendent of Education Gary Eagles said it has been hard to get people to contest school board positions; they watch their elected officials make painful budget cuts and they don't want to be in that position. "We are actually at a point in time where things have taken a turn for the better, and California is starting to have better funding for school districts," Eagles said. "The problem is that many people still have this mind state." He's running uncontested for his own position this June.
The number of uncontested races on a ballot might discourage people from voting. In roughly 11,000 races across the state from 2003 through 2012, almost 2,000 candidates took elected office unopposed, including 37 in Humboldt. In the 2012 race for Arcata City Council, all three incumbents — Michael Winkler, Shane Brinton and Susan Ornelas — ran unopposed.
Brinton believes the lack of challengers signaled satisfaction on the part of voters. But Humboldt State University political science professor Kathleen Lee said just because no one bothers to run against incumbents, doesn't mean they have voter support. A post like city council is time-consuming and pays just about $6,000 a year.
"They do not have the stamp of approval of their voters," Lee said. "One of the things about [an election] is it forces the politician to come back to their constituents and justify the actions they have taken and explain what their vision is for that office they are in."
If all voters had approved of all three city council candidates, they would have cast a total of 26,000 votes. But only 13,800 were cast, reflecting only 52 percent approval by the 70 percent of registered voters who participated. Write-in candidates received a total of 503 votes, or 3.4 percent.
Brinton said he would have liked the opportunity to debate issues. "It's better if elections are contested," Brinton said. "In Arcata all you have to do is go out and get 20 signatures from registered voters, so I wouldn't say the bar is too high here. It's lower than running for student body president at HSU. I mean you just have to get some signatures to get on the ballot."
In 2012, Charlie Bean had to get 25 signatures to run as a write-in candidate against incumbent Linda Atkins and HSU employee Joe Bonino for the Eureka City Council's Ward 2 seat.
He said he was upset over a proposal to build a park that did not include disabled access. "I have a wheelchair and a child," he said. "I would not have been able to reach [the park]."
He got 71 votes. "[That was] 71 more votes than I expected to get," he said. "Some people said that if I would have started earlier they would have supported me. I feel like I got what I wanted done. I wanted to raise the idea to have a more open dialogue and to consider [the Americans with Disabilities Act]."
Write in names can show a voter's unhappiness with uncontested candidates, and that's different than apathy, said Steve Boilard, executive director for the Center for California Studies at the California State University in Sacramento. "Some people don't think there are real choices," he said. "They might not see a big difference between the candidates."
That's how Jeremy Smith-Danford felt during the 2012 presidential election.
The marketing and graphics assistant at the North Coast Co-Op in Arcata cast his vote for president with "The Great Pumpkin," the elusive Halloween hero of Peanuts character Linus van Pelt. "I was in the voting booth and I decided for me that a write-in exemplified how it is all kind of silly," Smith-Danford said.
Over a 10-year-period roughly 663,000 voters wrote-in candidates in some 4,800 races in California. In 2008, more than 17,000 people wrote in names for Santa Barbara School Board although five candidates were on the ballot. Mitch Trachtenberg, a software engineer who helped establish the Humboldt Election Transparency Project, suggested turning in a ballot with all write-ins. "If you think it's a broken system, then not voting is not a good way of showing that," he said. "You get lumped in with those who don't care. Show up to vote, just don't vote for any of the candidates."
In Humboldt County alone a total of 37 people have been able to obtain a local government position uncontested. This June the following seven positions, and candidates, will be uncontested on the ballot:
Mari Wilson, Assessor
John Bartholomew, Treasurer-Tax Collector
Mike Downey, Sheriff
Joseph Mellett, Auditor-Controller
David Parris, Coroner
Kelly Sanders, Clerk Recorder
Garry T. Eagles, Superintendent of Schools
Arcata resident Kevin Johnson doesn't know if he'll vote in the upcoming election. "I don't do the local elections," he said. The professional chef and father doesn't have the time to educate himself on the candidates and local issues. "My wife thinks I vote all the time, but I don't," he said. "Sometimes it's just hard to find out who [the candidates] are, what they do, so it just feels weird voting for somebody just based on their name."
He hasn't had a chance to look at his sample ballot or discuss what's on it with his wife. "We don't even talk about if we [vote] because of the kid and our schedules," he said. "I go to work and she has the kid and then we switch, so we don't really have time."
Many people are in the same boat. Some 105,000 people in Humboldt County are eligible to vote, but seven out of 10 of them skipped the last June election. Many of those who did vote passed over some local races on their ballots.
Low voter turnout plagues counties throughout the state. In Tulare County in the Central Valley, with its high percentage of seasonal farmworkers, only 55 percent of eligible citizens are even registered to vote, the lowest percentage in the state. That compares to 64 percent for Humboldt County.
Those who, like Johnson, don't vote give more power to those who do. Humboldt State freshman Marissa Lopez plans to vote for the first time this June. Last year, she organized a voter registration campaign for her El Sereno classmates who had just turned 18.
"A lot of kids didn't care," Lopez said. "I would talk to my peers about voting and there's the half that would say your vote doesn't count and won't be heard anyway."
Her peers don't realize the power they have. Eric McGhee, a research fellow for the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco, said they represent a new demographic. While Lopez is a third generation Mexican-American, the parents of many of her peers are the children of undocumented immigrants. "They are citizens unlike their parents and there is no debate whether they get to vote," McGhee said.
An increase in any demographic could change a small election. Out of around 11,000 races in California in the 10 years that ended in 2012, some 670 of them were decided by a margin of 25 votes or fewer. That's one in 17 races. If you had five races per ballot and voted every time, you should encounter a close race once in every four elections. And if you organized 25 like-minded voters to similarly cast ballots in every election in your district, you could affect the results of that election. Humboldt State University math professor Bradley Ballinger cautioned that close races would appear more often in smaller jurisdictions and they would tend to clump together. If you had one close race on a ballot there would be a good chance of having another. In large cities and counties you might never encounter a close race. But small voting jurisdictions dot Humboldt County.
We could make it more convenient for people to vote, said Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich, if we set up more polling centers throughout the county. That way people could vote near their jobs.
That might not make much difference. Steve Boilard, executive director of the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento, said convenience just makes it easier for people to avoid their civic duty. How often do you forget to return an important text message?
That frustrates Byrd Lochtie, a member of the League of Women Voters of Humboldt County, which tries to get voters registered. "We go to one of the fairs at Humboldt State, or the Redwood Acres fair, or somewhere where people are gathering," she said. "Then people forget about it. The fairs are in the summer and you're not voting until November."
Many people say they don't vote because they don't know enough about the candidates or measures. HSU student Brittany Gautier said the last time she voted, it took some prep work. "I got the [sample ballot], took political science classes, read articles online," Gautier said. "A lot of propositions are worded funny. I think when I went to vote I wrote on my hand because reading the propositions I knew I'd get messed up."
Crnich said the instructions on ballots are written at a fifth-grade reading level. But the measures and propositions are often written at a 12th-grade reading level, or higher.
To increase voter turnout in Tacoma Park, a city just north of Washington, D.C., the city lowered the voting age to 16 for municipal elections. Critics questioned whether kids just old enough to drive could make smart voting decisions. Andrea Levien, a research associate at FairVote, an organization which pushed for the change, said voting is habit-forming.
"The younger people start to vote, the more likely they will tend to vote in the future," Levien said. Some 17 percent of residents aged 16 to 17 voted in the election — 59 teenagers — twice the turnout rate for residents 18 and over. "It was such a novel thing for us to see that their voter turnout was quite high once we got them interested in politics and voting," Levien said.
But the lessons these high school students learned is less clear. The races on the ballot — for mayor and six city council positions — were all uncontested.
Back in 2000, the League of Women Voters launched an unofficial teen vote drive here. Lochtie said they set up teen voting sites at election polls so teens could go with their parents and vote unofficially at the same polling place. "We had a counting afterwards on KEET TV for the kids to see how their vote came out compared to the national vote, but it was a huge amount of work, " she said. "And the turnout was very disappointing."
Lochtie said people need to recognize that voting is a responsibility. "People really have to want to do it and make the effort themselves," she said. "I can't make them do it."
Counties with the lowest percentage of registered voters:
Tulare – 55%
Mono – 56%
Imperial – 59%
Kings – 60%
Colusa – 61%
Counties with the highest percentage of registered voters:
Alpine – 92%
Sierra – 87%
Orange – 84%
Marin – 83%
Plumas – 81%
Source: Compiled from California Secretary of State voter registration data
Humboldt's Top 5 Voter Participating Towns:
Kneeland – 81%
Bayside – 79%
Ferndale – 79%
Trinidad – 78%
Whitethorn – 77%
Humboldt's 5 Least Voter Participating Towns:
Hoopa – 45%
Orick – 54%
Philipsville – 59%
Alderpoint – 60%
Scotia – 61%
Source: Compiled from Humboldt County Elections Office data for the November 2012 election.
Barbara Hudson has lived in Humboldt County for seven years. In 2012, the Eureka resident filled in her absentee ballot, put it in an envelope and dropped it in the mailbox.
"I always vote," she said. But that year, Hudson forgot to sign her ballot and that disqualified her vote.
She wasn't alone. In that June election, 94 other voters were also excluded from the final count. Disqualified ballots tend to make up roughly two percent of total votes, which could turn a close election. One disqualified vote put Scotia resident Rick Walsh on his community services district board in 2011, for example.
Forgetting to sign the envelope is a common mistake absentee voters make. So is a change in signature that leaves county elections staff unable to verify the ballot. "Especially elderly people, who've maybe experienced a health issue," said Humboldt County Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich.
Arcata resident Russell Taylor had no idea that a change in his signature had disqualified his vote in the past two elections. A wildlife fighter, Taylor is gone over the summer and votes by mail because he travels so often. After learning that his votes hadn't been counted, Taylor said that he might start going in to vote in person.
"Well, my signature may have changed in the last 10 years when I registered to vote," said Taylor. "Now it's just squiggly lines."
There are other common problems that leave votes uncounted. Married couples who put two ballots in one envelope disqualify both, and an empty envelope gives the office nothing to work with.
Up until a week before Election Day, the elections staff tries to call voters who mailed in bad ballots, assuming there aren't too many of them to contact, said Crnich. "We make every effort to get these [voters] into the office," said Crnich. Hudson said she never received a call.
Hudson sometimes votes absentee but then hand-delivers the ballot to the voting booth on Election Day instead of mailing it in. "Maybe I was planning on doing that and just forgot to sign," Hudson said. "I'll be careful next time."
How many of the other 94 voters who made the effort to cast a ballot in a June election knew it went uncounted is hard to tell. You can find out if your vote was disqualified before it is too late by going on the elections department website and plugging in your name and driver's license or ID card number. "It'll tell you if your vote-by-mail ballot has been challenged," said Crnich. You can do that as early as 28 days prior to Election Day, giving you plenty of time to cast another if there was a problem.
Hudson didn't know she could do that.
What disqualifies a ballot:
• Two ballots in one envelope (neither will be counted)
• Signature is different than the one on record
• Voter forgot to sign the ballot
• Envelope is empty
• No residence address
• Ballot is too late