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L.A. Clerk says vote-by-mail could bring dramatic boost in turnout -- and costs

December 3, 2009 | 12:41 pm
Switching to vote-by-mail citywide elections in Los Angeles -- and doing away with traditional polling places -- could increase voter participation but be costly and pose a threat to the integrity of elections, a report by the Los Angeles City Clerk concluded today.

However, the use of vote-by-mail balloting could be a good option for small, non-citywide special elections, including those to fill vacant City Council seats, the report stated. In those cases, the city could save money and eliminate the need for poll workers and polling places.

City Clerk June Lagmay conducted the study at the request of council members who expressed alarm over the dismal voter turnout in city elections, which usually are held during different times than statewide or national elections.
From 1978 to 2008, the average city turnout for a mayoral election was 30%, and 15% for a non-citywide municipal election. By comparison, the average city turnout for a gubernatorial election during that time period was 46%, and turnout increased to 61% during presidential elections, the report found.

The report concluded that using a vote-by-mail system for citywide elections could increase voter participation by as much as 700% -- if registered voters returned ballots at the same high rate as the city’s current absentee voters have done in recent elections.

But the clerk’s office would have to hire 560 employees to process the ballots, and could be so overwhelmed that the “integrity of the election" could be put at risk,  Lagmay said in the report. The office would be able to handle smaller special elections with existing staff, she said.

If the city switches to a vote-by-mail model, L.A. could also establish neighborhood voting centers and ballot drop-off boxes to address any voter concerns about the elimination of polling places, the report said.

Changing the way city elections are conducted would require voter approval, since the City Charter, L.A’s primary governing blueprint, would have to be amended.

The vote-by-mail report is scheduled to be presented to the council’s Rules and Election Committee on Wednesday.

-- Phil Willon at L.A. City Hall

Twitter: @Phil_Willon

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