If 2020 were a normal election year, Palm Springs City Councilwoman Lisa Middleton would have been hot on the campaign trail for her re-election bid — knocking on doors, shaking hands and attending house parties.
After all, running for a seat on the City Council, especially in districts, often requires candidates to participate in many in-person events to meet voters, discuss their campaign platforms and answer questions from the public.
But as California maintains stringent restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic and tens of thousands of new infections are reported every week, politicians like Middleton are grappling with how best to run their campaigns.
To gather signatures to qualify for the November ballot, Middleton last month came up with a solution: a socially-distanced signature-gathering event where district residents wore masks.
From an event like Middleton’s to a drive-through kick-off party and virtual meet-and-greets, Coachella Valley candidates are relying on some traditional strategies while also finding new ways to run campaigns.
Other elements of the political process are being transformed by the pandemic as well. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed executive orders regarding mail-in ballots and in-person voting opportunities, which will change the voting experience for some in the Coachella Valley and Riverside County.
A new way of meeting voters
On July 11, Middleton invited a handful of voters in Palm Springs to come to her — but not too close. And with masks on.
She and a small group of volunteers sat in her home in the city’s District 5 to welcome supporters, who trickled in throughout the day to sign in support of her effort to qualify for the ballot.
“I really liked it,” Middleton said of the process. “One great advantage of having people come to us is we had an opportunity to have pre-checked their addresses.”
In masks, the supporters walked into her home and maintained social distance from others in attendance, signing the sheet with a pen they could take home. They also had the option to pick up campaign materials and questionnaires, all while not touching anyone else.
In the past, candidates have acquired signatures by knocking on doors, going to events or meeting people in public places. In 2017, for instance, Middleton acquired her signatures at ONE-PS and other community meetings.
Pandemic effects felt elsewhere
In addition to affecting local campaigns, the pandemic has brought changes to ballots, voting centers and signature-gathering initiatives throughout the country.
On May 8, Newsom signed an executive order requiring county elections officials throughout the state to send vote-by-mail ballots for the November election. But those who may need access to in-person voting opportunities — including people with disabilities, non-English speakers and homeless individuals — will still be able to have in-person voting opportunities.
“No Californian should be forced to risk their health in order to exercise their right to vote,” Newsom said in a statement. “Mail-in ballots aren’t a perfect solution for every person, and I look forward to our public health experts and the Secretary of State’s and the Legislature’s continued partnership to create safer in-person opportunities for Californians who aren’t able to vote by mail.”
A month later, Newsom signed another executive order pertaining to in-person voting accessibility.
Riverside County’s registered voters, who total around 1.2 million, will be mailed a voter information guide and mail ballots weeks in advance of the November election, said Rebecca Spencer, Riverside County Registrar of Voters.
Typically, there are 600 polling places in a countywide election. Spencer said many polling places won’t be available this year and that the county will instead have 120 vote centers across the county.
Newsom’s order allows counties to have at least one voting center for every 10,000 registered voters.
The voting centers will be open from the Saturday before Election Day through Election Day and serve as a hub for people who need in-person assistance or had issues with their ballots, among other concerns, Spencer said.
“We recognize there will be specific reasons that someone needs in-person voting assistance,” Spencer said.
The pandemic has had other impacts throughout the political sphere, said Michael Arno, founder and president of Arno Petition Consultants.
Arno said he believed four additional signature-driven ballot measures would have appeared on the November ballot in California had it not been for the pandemic.
Twelve measures have been approved for the November ballot, according to the state.
Eight of the measures were put on the ballot via signatures, whereas four were placed by the California Legislature, according to CalMatters.
Signature gatherers who got an early start and were finished by the end of February or March were fortunate, Arno said.
In years past, college campuses were a regular target of signature-gatherers. But colleges moving online during the pandemic has affected the number of signers, he said.
In the future, Arno said one lesson is that people who want to put an initiative on the ballot need to start early. “There are things that happen beyond our control,” he said.
The state does not allow signature-gatherers to use “electronic signatures” through providers such as DocuSign, even though such signatures are regularly used in real estate transactions and other contractual business.
In August 2019, a proponent of electronic signatures for petitions sent a proposed measure to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office for circulation. However, the measure did not receive the required number of signatures and will not appear on the November ballot.
Arno said he would embrace electronic signatures for petitions.
“It should certainly be an option,” he said.
Campaigning during a pandemic
Some candidates like Desert Hot Springs Mayor Scott Matas are embracing virtual meet-and-greets.
A Desert Hot Springs councilman since 2007 and mayor since 2015, Matas is hosting online events and using mail, bus ads, billboards and social media to reach people during the pandemic instead of door-to-door campaigning or in-person gatherings.
Matas, who has maintained an active social media presence as mayor, said engaging with residents on social media is not new to him and that he enjoys taking live questions during the virtual sessions.
“I like the format that we’ve been using,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me at all.”
During a typical election year, Desert Hot Springs Councilman Russell Betts — who has also served on the council since 2007 — said he might do meet-and-greets inside people’s homes or meet people in-person at other locations. But during the pandemic, however, such interactions are difficult to organize given safety concerns and gathering restrictions.
For the November campaign, Betts said he will probably call residents in areas of the city where he’s previously had support and use mailers. “You have to put more energy into getting your message out,” Betts said.
Palm Springs Mayor Pro Tem Christy Holstege said she also has plans to use both digital and conventional methods to reach voters.
Holstege, who won a City Council seat in 2017, said she is focused on direct voter outreach like she did before. She said she planned to use phone banks, hold virtual events, call voters directly and reach out to voters through social media.
She has also hosted on July 25 a socially-distanced, drive-thru campaign event, where supporters could sign nomination papers, pick up signs and drop off donations.
Reelection: Christy Holstege, Palm Springs mayor pro tem, kicks off reelection campaign
Election: Local business owner Evan Trubee sets sights on Palm Desert council seat
Although current candidates have been able to avoid a lot of physical interaction with voters compared to previous election years, one candidate has raised concerns about the number of required signatures for candidates.
In an interview last month with The Desert Sun, District 4 candidate Mike McCulloch said he believed the city requirement for 80 signatures should have been lowered or rescinded, considering the pandemic.
“It’s not only difficult,” McCulloch said of gathering signatures, “It’s unsafe.”
Gathering signatures is integral to running for City Council. In order to qualify in Palm Springs, candidates must gather at least 80 signatures from registered voters in their district, City Clerk Anthony Mejia said.
The state, county and city did not provide written guidance to candidates on the signature-gathering process, Mejia said. He recommended candidates maintain social distancing and face coverings during the process.
Despite his concerns, McCulloch collected the required number of signatures and is running against Holstege and Dian Torres in District 4.
Middleton: Lisa Middleton to run again for Palm Springs City Council, won’t seek state Senate seat
History: Who is Lisa Middleton? The first transgender person elected to non-judicial office in California
CalMatters contributed to this report.
Shane Newell covers breaking news and the western Coachella Valley cities of Palm Springs, Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs. He can be reached at [email protected], 760-778-4649 or on Twitter at @journoshane.