Complaints About Campaigns and Elections: Frequent Questions

Gerrie Schipske

The November election is nearing and there are frequent postings on Facebook about complaints against candidates running for office. There are also questions about conduct at polling places. The complaints range from a candidate not living in the district to spreading false information about an opponent and mailboxes being stuffed with countless mailers. So, what is a voter to do?

Q. Do candidates have to live in the council district?

A. Candidates must be registered voters in the City of Long Beach and living in the council district for which they plan to run for at least 30 days prior to the end of the nomination period. The courts have ruled repeatedly that it is unconstitutional to require a longer residency. A candidate for Congress does not even need to live in the district in which he or she runs.

Q. If a candidate lies about another candidate, what can be done to stop him?

A. Not much. If a city has an ethics commission, a complaint can be filed against the offending candidate. The candidate who is the focus of the lie can do little except to refute the allegations. The courts will not issue an injunction to stop the “lies” because they do not want to interfere with the political process. If they could issue an injunction, imagine how many elections would be interfered with and stopped?

Q. Isn’t it slander or libel to lie about a candidate?

A. Slander and libel are different types of defamation. Slander is spoken and libel is written. Unfortunately, when someone puts themselves out in the public arena as a candidate, it is difficult to successfully sue for defamation. The offended candidate would have to prove “malice” – meaning that the other candidate knew for certain or should have known for certain that what was stated was not truthful. If the offending candidate believed it was true, then there is no malice. If what was said about a candidate harms his or her business, then there might be a case for interference with a business contract.

Q. Why do campaigns send so many mailers?

A. It is estimated that it takes six separate contacts with a voter to get that voter’s support. Those six contacts can be telephone calls, texts or mailers. An average mail piece costs the candidate between $1.25 to $3 depending upon the size and the consultant paid to design and mail it. The larger the mail piece, the more likely one will read it. Most mailers are sent right before ballots are mailed. The US Postal Service provides a bulk mail rate and expedites political mail.

Q. Aren’t local elections non-partisan? Why do political parties get involved?

A. Yes, local elections are supposedly non-partisan. Candidates often request local political party organizations for endorsement and contributions. Once a candidate receives an endorsement, they can then target voters who are affiliated with the organization that has endorsed.

Q. If a candidate violates the law, who enforces?

A. It depends upon the law. The City of Long Beach Prosecutor can only prosecute misdemeanor offenses. The Los Angeles County District Attorney can prosecute felonies. If the violation was related to campaign contributions, then the Fair Political Practices Commission is responsible. FPPC is a five-member independent, non-partisan commission that has primary responsibility for the impartial and effective administration of the Political Reform Act. The act regulates campaign financing, conflicts of interest, lobbying and governmental ethics.

 Q. Can candidates or their surrogates campaign anywhere near a polling place?

A. The law restricts electioneering to beyond 100 feet from a polling place. “Electioneering” means the visible display or audible dissemination of information that advocates for or against any candidate or measure on the ballot within 100 feet of a polling place, a vote center, an elections official’s office, or a satellite location. Prohibited electioneering information includes, but is not limited to, any of the following:

(a) A display of a candidate’s name, likeness, or logo.

(b) A display of a ballot measure’s number, title, subject, or logo.

(c) Buttons, hats, pencils, pens, shirts, signs, or stickers containing electioneering information.

(d) Dissemination of audible electioneering information.

(e) At vote-by-mail ballot drop boxes, loitering near or disseminating visible or audible electioneering information.

Q. What are the laws about poll watchers?

A. Most other states have specific laws to qualify as a “poll watcher.” California does not. There are specific laws concerning the conduct of poll watchers: Only poll workers and voters engaged in voting may be within the voting booth area when the polls are open. Other people may be in the polling place observing the process as long as they do not interfere with any voter’s right to cast a secret ballot or a poll worker’s ability to work. Poll workers should be taught how to treat elections observers, as well as what elections observers are and are not allowed to do. (§ 14221)

Poll workers should be made aware that people have the right to observe the election process, even if they are not voting. Observers may be at the polls before they open to the public, during polling hours and after the polls close. Observers have the right to ask poll workers questions about elections procedures and to receive an answer or be directed to the appropriate official for an answer. However, if persistent questioning disrupts the poll workers’ duties, the poll workers can stop responding and direct the observers to the county elections office for further answers. (§ 2300(a)(9)).

Q. If a voter feels intimidated at the polls, who can she contact?

A. You can ask to speak with a poll worker or a supervisor at the polling place. You can also contact the national voter protection program at 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683).


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