After learning about an email encouraging short-term vacation rental owners to register as Del Mar residents, the City Council on Sept. 19 asserted the city would take the necessary steps to protect against voter registration fraud and ensure a fair election.
“It is of the utmost importance that we do everything we can to make sure the election is fair,” said Councilman Dwight Worden.
The upcoming election could help shape the council that makes a decision on the controversial issue of short-term rentals — an ongoing debate in Del Mar.
Short-term rentals are not specifically permitted or prohibited in the city. Still, the practice has been going on for decades in Del Mar.
With the recent proliferation of short-term rentals, however, the council is currently contemplating whether to ban or regulate them or, perhaps, let voters decide.
Supporters argue that short-term rentals benefit the community, serving tourists in the city, while opponents contend that rentals have changed the character of the community. There have also been complaints about noise, parking and trash.
There are three council seats on the ballot, something the Aug. 31 email blatantly points out.
Mayor Sherryl Parks and Councilmen Al Corti and Don Mosier’s seats are up for grabs in November. Although Parks and Corti are running for re-election, Mosier is not seeking another term.
A group called Share Del Mar Alliance, which supports short-term rentals, sent the email to an undisclosed number of people, asking rental owners to change their voter registration to Del Mar.
“The opposition is counting on the fact that many STVR owners live (and vote) elsewhere and we need to change this,” states the email, whose author’s name has since been redacted. “We can. And it’s pretty easy. I’m one of those and changed.”
The email gives step-by-step instructions on how rental owners can list their property address as their home address and then list their actual residence as their mailing address in order to receive a mail ballot at their non-Del Mar home. The California Elections Code, however, states that people can only vote in the precinct in which they are “domiciled.”
The email also describes some council members and council candidates as “supporters” and others as “opponents” of short-term rentals.
“We want a fair election and I want a fair election,” said Corti, who was identified as a “swing vote” in the letter.
Corti said he was “appalled and disappointed” by the group’s actions. After learning about the letter, he said he sent the group an email insisting he would help ensure the city has a fair election.
“The effort by the Share Del Mar Alliance to have non-residents change their voter registration to Del Mar is not only a violation of the California Elections Code, but a direct threat to the integrity of our upcoming Del Mar election,” said Del Mar resident and former San Diego County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price.
“As a longtime elected official, I know how important it is for citizens to trust that elections are fair, and I know that you, as elected officials, share my commitment to stopping voter fraud,” she added. “I certainly encourage all qualified citizens to vote, but please vote where you live. Don’t try to affect the outcome of our elections by claiming to live here when you don’t. Your domicile is where you and your family reside — not where you do business.”
In an effort to identify and prevent voter registration fraud, Slater-Price requested the council direct city staff and citizens “to work cooperatively and proactively” with the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, San Diego County District Attorney’s office and California Secretary of State. She said that several non-residents allegedly registered to vote by listing their business address or the Del Mar Post Office address as their residence.
“With the number of applications in a voter pool this small, it will be possible for us to go through and verify that everyone is, indeed, a resident,” Slater-Price said. “It will also send a clear and present message to everyone who might consider doing this to advance their own business purposes.”
Del Mar resident Claire McGreal also asked that the Registrar of Voters verify all Del Mar residents who registered to vote on or after Aug. 31, when the email was circulated.
“This is a very, very important issue,” McGreal said. “We must do whatever we can do to protect the integrity of our elections in Del Mar.”
The email was first addressed publicly at the Sept. 6 council meeting, when council members received a red dot letter just prior to the meeting. Council members couldn’t discuss the item because it was not on the agenda, but they agreed to address the issue at the next meeting on Sept. 19.
Following the Sept. 6 meeting, the city’s administrative services director, Ashley Jones, said she forwarded the original email to the San Diego County Registrar of Voters. The Registrar of Voters, she said, has since notified the San Diego County District Attorney’s office, which has started an investigation.
“That’s still actively underway,” Jones said at the Sept. 19 meeting. “We will continue to provide any information or assist them in any way that they need us to.”
Since the initial email, the sender sent a retraction on Sept. 8, urging recipients to “not take any action in response to or reliance on my email.”
Despite the retraction, council members wanted to make a clear statement to the community that people should not falsely register to vote in Del Mar. Therefore, the council made a motion to confirm its commitment to preserve the integrity of the local election.
The council encouraged city staff to continue to work closely with the Registrar of Voters, the district attorney’s office and other authorities on any suspected illegal voter activity in the community. The council also encouraged city staff and community members to cooperatively work together to identify suspect addresses.
“This needs to be very clear to everybody that this is not something we want in our community,” Deputy Mayor Terry Sinnott said.