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LA Teachers Proposing Online Voting System for Union Elections

Brianna Sacks | August 1, 2013

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An online voting system in Virginia

An online voting system in Virginia

Less than 23 percent of the 40,000 members of United Teachers of Los Angeles cast ballots in the final round of voting for union president in 2011, the union’s last leadership election. Even fewer, 15 percent, voted in the preliminary round.

A new, online voting system could change all that, says a group of teachers who are taking their case to the membership.

“We’re proposing that all the city-wide elections would be online,” said Marisa Crabtree, a UTLA Chapter Chair and member of the House of Representatives for the East Area. She is spearheading the initiative, which will be presented to union members at the annual UTLA Leadership Conference this weekend at the Westin Los Angeles Airport. “We want to encourage people to vote more and that comes from a more flexible, user-friendly system,” she said.

UTLA’s current voting system is paper-based and differs for various elections. If members vote on a contract change, a chapter chair hosts an in-person election at every school site. Leadership elections rely on snail mail ballots, which have to be turned in by a certain date for counting.

But what if a teacher is absent or out of town? What if a member loses a ballot or forgets to mail it in on time? Ultimately, like most elections, mailing in a ballot can seem too arduous for an important election, especially with newer digital options available.

And since so few UTLA members last voted for a union president, the current voting system needs an upgrade, said Crabtree, who is an English and choral teacher at Abraham Lincoln Senior High School in east Los Angeles.

“Most of the races in the last election were won by 80 to 100 votes,” she said. “They become close races because there were only 8,000 ballots cast.”

The union did not respond to a request for comment.

Crabtree contends that teachers favor an easier, more streamlined voting system.

“I have friends and fellow teachers who are active UTLA members but missed the mail-in deadline or forgot to send it in all together,” she said.

Her fellow teachers are also extremely busy, she added, and having a system that would allow them to vote late at night or during a lunch break would generate more voter participation, especially from semi-involved members.

That’s what spurred Megan Markevich, a middle school teacher at Luther Burbank Middle School in Highland Park and a member of the UTLA House of Reps, to join Crabtree in pushing for a new system.

Markevich says members like her don’t have much of a say in union issues.

“We want more teacher voices on issues,” said Markevich, who is also proposing that the union use the electronic system to survey members on issues.

“Members could vote in the convenience and privacy of their own home without a Chapter Chair looking over their shoulder or influencing them on who to vote for, which happens,” she said.

While details are still in the works, Crabtree and Markevich say they have spoken to a few online voting companies willing to create an easy log-in system, such as the voting systems created for teacher unions in Hawaii and the Volusia County Teachers Association in Florida.

Crabtree said she anticipates pushback on the proposal from union leaders during the leadership conference. “If you change the system leaders can feel threatened,” she said.

Markevich agreed, explaining that an electronic voting system could take away Chapter Chairs’ duties since they are responsible for hosting elections. She also cited unfamiliarity with the system and fears of hacking as other reasons why some might object to a new voting system.

“They will say it didn’t work in places like San Diego, but the fact is that a lot of unions are using it and it has been successful in Hawaii and Florida,” said Markevich.

The conference is for union Chapter Chairs and UTLA leaders, which is why Crabtree and Markevich are expecting a host of questions and comments following their presentation.

“A lot of leaders are not fans of it,” said Crabtree. “Like many other democratic bodies, the union is a little resistant to change and it can be a power struggle.”

But a new electronic voting system could free up people from hosting elections, creating mailers and counting ballots — time that could otherwise be spent “helping kids,” according to Crabtree.

“Overall, people are disappointed with the lack of organizing at UTLA,” Markevich said. “It’s like pulling teeth to get people on election committees. No one wants or has the time to volunteer and this system could free up all that energy and use it to let people know about important issues.”

While other district unions already use electronic voting systems, “L.A. unified could be the largest school union to be the frontrunner on online voting,” said Crabtree.

Crabtree, Markevich and other supporters of the on-line system say they need at least 600 signatures before they turn in the initiative, giving the union two months to vote on it. They said they have 450 and expect to rally enough members to sign on to support the new voting system by the end of August.

“I have personally collected 200 signatures and only one person was hesitant,” said Markevich. “The rest were very excited about it and said, ‘I can’t believe we aren’t already doing this.'”

“Hopefully,” said Crabtree, “that will be our last paper vote.”

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