On Saturday, Oct. 24, Malibu Times Multimedia Director Julie Ellerton arrived at the one-day voting center at Malibu Bluffs Park around 3 p.m.—which happened to coincide with the arrival of a group of supporters of President Donald Trump bearing flags and signs.
The interaction that then occurred between supporters of the president’s reelection and The Malibu Times reporter escalated into taunts and jeering, raising questions about the line between the first amendment rights of free speech and laws protecting voters.
According to spokespeople with the LA County Registrar-Recorder’s office, no formal complaint was lodged about the rally on Saturday, indicating the election worker at the park did not feel the demonstration broke election law.
“Our election workers are trained to monitor, handle and report if electioneering takes place,” Mike Sanchez, a representative of the LA County Registrar, said. Sanchez later told The Malibu Times that no report about electioneering had been filed by election workers from Malibu Bluffs Park last Saturday, but that his office planned to reach out to the site lead to see what had taken place.
“To be completely candid, [The Malibu Times’] email today was the first I heard about anything happening there,” he said.
Sanchez was unable to speculate as to how many—if any—electioneering reports had so far been filed this year in the county, but he said that electioneering was “not very common” and “rare.”
This rally, commonly advertised on local forums as “Malibu MAGA Meet Up & Car Parade” consists of a parade of cars and trucks that has driven through Malibu every Saturday in October from Bluffs Park to Cross Creek via PCH, then turns around and regroups at Bluffs Park before continuing on to Beverly Hills. But this time, when the rally wound up at the park, there was a vote center open at the Michael Landon Center.
Sanchez said in an email to The Malibu Times that “By law, there can be no electioneering within 100 feet of the Vote Center.”
Ellerton said that the rally was more than 100 feet away from the vote center. But the rally participants were on foot blocking the roadway and waving Trump flags across the park’s driveway, making it impossible to reach the vote center without coming within a couple feet of them.
When Ellerton saw the parade pull into the park area, she began shooting photos and filming video. As the street lined with trucks and flags and filled with laughter and the noise of megaphones and cheering, Trump supporters attempted to engage her with taunts, asking her if she speaks English, telling her to move to another country and telling her she can “go home and be triggered all night long.”
At one point, an election worker from the vote center came over to ask the rally participants to keep the noise down.
The rally participants told the election worker that Ellerton was the one who came over to them and suggested that she was “on [the poll worker’s] side.”
Though journalists are not required by law to announce they are members of the press—nor do civilians need to be members of the press in order to film public events—Ellerton said to the rally participants that she was with The Malibu Times. She repeated again that she was with the newspaper and she had a right to be where she was.
A California statute that states “No person shall, with the intent of dissuading another person from voting, within 100 feet of a polling place ... Photograph, videotape, or otherwise record a voter entering or exiting a polling place,” does not apply because Ellerton was neither working to dissuade voting, nor was she within 100 feet of the vote center.
Laws about newsgathering at polling places are complex, but according to Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP), in 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit blocked an Ohio law that restricted people from entering the polling place or “loiter[ing]” in the adjacent area outside.
“The court held that the state was required to permit a news organization ‘to have reasonable access to any polling place for the purpose of news-gathering and reporting so long as [they] do not interfere with poll workers and voters as voters exercise their right to vote,’” RCFP wrote.
Organizers of the rally did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.
Malibu Mayor Mikke Pierson said he alerted the local sheriff’s station to the rally’s presence both the first and second time the rally was held; he said it is normal for him to let them know about any potential event or gathering. Pierson said that the second time he alerted the sheriff’s department, they told him that they knew about the ongoing rallies and, to their knowledge, no laws were being broken—according to Pierson, law enforcement told him “there’s no role for us unless the law is broken.”
Nationwide, outlets such as USA Today have reported that “voter intimidation is surging.” The New York Timesreported in September a similar situation to last Saturday’s Trump rally happened in Virginia, where the president’s supporters blocked the entrance to one early voting center but were outside the requisite 40 feet (in Virginia, the law says that electioneering can happen outside 40 feet of a voting place).
The ACLU states that voter intimidation can include such things as aggressively questioning voters about their citizenship, criminal record, or other qualifications to vote; displaying false signs about voter fraud; and other harassment, “particularly toward non-English speakers and voters of color.” The California Elections Code does not go into detail, but defines intimidation as: “Every person who makes use of or threatens to make use of any force, violence, or tactic of coercion or intimidation, to induce or compel any other person to vote or refrain from voting at any election or to vote or refrain from voting for any particular person or measure at any election, or because any person voted or refrained from voting at any election or voted or refrained from voting for any particular person or measure at any election.”
According to California Elections Code, voter intimidation is a felony and the penalty is up to three years in prison.
This report comes during a year where many are already worried about the efficacy of the election process. Elsewhere in the county, an unknown person set fire to an official ballot drop box outside the Baldwin Park Library in mid-October.
In late September, the president said during his first debate against Vice President Joe Biden that he’d heard reports of the ballots of military members being found in a waste paper basket and worried that the election would be “fraudulent.” In his response, the vice president said that “no one has established at all that there is fraud related to mail-in ballots.”
Registered voters may vote at the roughly 1,000 vote centers throughout the county. Three of those vote centers are located within Malibu city limits: one at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, one at the Malibu Christian Science Church and one at Webster Elementary School.
All county vote centers will be open by Oct. 30, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. to facilitate early voting, as well as being open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day.
The closest vote centers to Malibu are:
•Juan Cabrillo Elementary, 30237 Morning View Dr
•Christian Science Church, 28635 Pacific Coast Hwy
•Webster Elementary, 3602 Winter Canyon Rd
•Topanga Library, 122 N Topanga Canyon Blvd
•Topanga Community Center, 1440 N Topanga Canyon Blvd
•The Mountain Mermaid, 20421 Callon Dr, Topanga
•Palisades Recreation Center, 851 Alma Real Dr
•Malibou Lake Mountain, 29033 Lake Vista Dr, Agoura Hills
In addition, vote by mail ballots may be dropped off at any of 400 secure drop boxes located around the county, including one in Malibu—at the Malibu Library, which is open 24 hours per day.
A spokesperson for California Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office reaffirmed on Tuesday, Oct. 27, that “it’s definitely not too late to mail in a ballot.” For ballots to be counted, they must be postmarked by Tuesday, Nov. 3, and received no later than Friday, Nov. 20.