Roughly two years ago, on Election Day 2014, an anonymous caller phoned in to the Contra Costa County Elections Division at 5:10pm.
According to the department’s phone logs, the caller complained that staff members for two City Council candidates were engaged in “heavy campaigning” in a parking lot outside the Veterans Memorial Hall polling place on 23rd Street in Richmond. The candidates were Nathaniel Bates and Jim Rogers, both of whom are running again this year.
Earlier that morning, the Richmond Police Department had been dispatched to the same polling place.
According to the phone logs, when the officers arrived at the scene, they measured a distance of 100 feet from the building and drew a line, over which people campaigning for specific candidates or ballot measures could not cross, according to restrictions outlined in California’s Election Code.
A little later that morning, a call to the Election Division came in from a polling place across town, in Atchison Village. This time the caller was City Council Candidate Corky Boozé.
Boozé accused the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) of entering within 100 feet of the polling place to campaign for their candidates. (Boozé is slated to appear on the ballot this year, in a contest against RPA-backed candidates Ben Choi and Melvin Willis.)
According to Contra Costa County’s Clerk-Recorder-Registrar, Joseph Canciamilla, these types of incidents are something of a tradition in Richmond.
“Many times, [campaigns] like to push the limits of the 100-foot boundary, or their folks get a little too excited with handing out materials,” said Canciamilla. He said he doesn’t think any individual campaign was to blame for the 2014 irregularities.
Canciamilla also doesn’t think electioneering will be as much of a problem this year, because the council elections aren’t as contentious as they were in 2014, he said, when a progressive slate beat out several Chevron-backed candidates. For the most part, he plans to run things business as usual.
“We haven’t really felt a need to increase security or ramp up the number of inspectors,” Canciamilla said.
But not everyone shares Canciamilla’s confidence.
At least one City Council candidate plans to take steps of his own to ensure Richmond doesn’t see a repeat of 2014’s phone calls to the Elections Division.
Uche Uwahemu, who also ran for mayor back in 2014, said he’s planning to organize volunteers to monitor and videotape electioneering activities outside polling places with the highest voter turnout on November 8. The candidate said he was concerned that electioneers have targeted low-income neighborhoods in the past.
California law states that anyone can distribute campaign materials outside polling places—as long as they stay 100 feet away from the voting booths. Poll observers can help ensure that campaigners abide by these rules, but are also held to the same standard not to intimidate voters or interfere with the operation of the polling places, said Canciamilla.
Well-intentioned observers can also cause problems if they are misinformed about what electioneers are allowed to do, said Canciamilla.
“I think that the mistake that’s made is sending untrained, uneducated, unaware people out into the polling places,” he said. “Many of them don’t know what to look for.”
For example, some observers may not know that electioneering is permissible within 100 feet of polling places. Even if campaigns keep the required distance from polling places, they can still legally swamp surrounding areas with signs and volunteers.
Caroline Heldman, an associate professor of politics at Occidental College, says despite activity outside polling places and actions by election observers, voter rights are still protected by the anonymity of the voting booth.
“It doesn’t matter when you get into the polling booth—nobody knows who you voted for,” said Heldman.