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Political Races May Be Lost in the Translation : Campaigning: The soaring cost of candidates statements in voter guides may hurt upstarts and favor incumbents. Officials blame hike on federal mandate to print briefs also in Spanish and Vietnamese.

July 30, 1994|FRANK MESSINA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Sherri Butterfield's campaign for Mission Viejo City Council is being run from a spare downstairs bedroom.

A family friend will manage her race for political office because she doesn't want to spend the $4,000 to $6,000 most professional consultants want. But there is one expense she and most other candidates for local office will have to come up with: the cost to place their own statement in an election pamphlet the county sends to all registered voters.

What Butterfield and these candidates didn't figure on, however, was that the fee for printing the statement would soar since the 1992 general election.

The county wants $900 from Mission Viejo political hopefuls for a 200-word essay in the voters guide. Two years ago, the fee was $550.

The increases are being felt throughout the county, with the exact amount varying because the fee is pegged to the number of registered voters in each election district.

For instance, in the county's largest two-year-college district, Saddleback Community College, candidates paid $2,600 in 1992 for a 200-word statement, and will pony up $3,500 this year. In Anaheim, candidates will pay $1,400, up from $900 two years ago. In smaller Laguna Beach, incumbents and challengers saw the filing fee raised to $650 from $300.

The increases were prompted by a 1992 amendment to the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires the county registrar of voters to print voter guides in Vietnamese and Spanish, the predominant local minority languages.

Because of the fee hike, candidates and political watchdogs fear that cash-poor campaigners might now think twice about running for public office.

"The grass-roots candidate is getting priced out of the political process," said Shirley Grindle, a political reformer who has succeeded in getting many county campaign laws revamped. "It's going to become nearly impossible to get first-timers to run for office."

Translating and typesetting the statements into Vietnamese and Spanish is expensive and accounts for most of the increase, say registrar of voters officials. Printing costs are relatively small because the bilingual pamphlets are sent only to voters who request them.

A candidate may, however, pay an additional fee and have bilingual statements sent to every voter in the election district. It costs $300 to send the Spanish or Vietnamese versions, and $600 to send both.

Some candidates say it isn't fair to force candidates to pay such high fees, especially in cities such as Mission Viejo, which has a minority population of less than 10%.

"I think it's outrageous," said Norman P. Murray, a former Mission Viejo mayor who is considering another run for office. "It's a shame that candidates have to pay for voters who are either unwilling to understand the language or unwilling to go to school to learn.

"Why should this be so non (politically correct)?" he asked. "The ballot should be in English."

But the registrar of voters points out that federal law requires that bilingual ballot material be available to all voters.

"This is a requirement for us; it isn't an optional thing," said County Registrar Don Tanney, who estimated that more than half of all candidates file a statement. "This is kind of eye opening for everyone because it's the first time it has really hit" the candidates in the county, Tanney said.

The federal amendment went into effect in time for the 1992 general election in November, but when the county tried to bill candidates for the extra costs, several protested. As a result, the county absorbed the increase. But no longer.

Although the county is passing along the fee hike for this election, Tanney said there is a way to get out of paying it.

Statements aren't required, he said. "That's their own decision. A candidate might decide local mailers and flyers are better."

Compared to financing a mailer, the candidates statement is still a bargain, Butterfield said.

Production costs for a two-sided political mailer run at least $3,000 to $5,000 plus postage fees for about 20,000 households in Mission Viejo, she said.

"That's more than I'll spend in my whole campaign," Butterfield said.

Also, some candidates believe the 200-word essay has a legitimacy that is missing in mailers.

The candidates statement is "really not optional," said Mark Gaugan, who is running for the Saddleback Community College District board of trustees. "Without that statement, voters immediately have the impression that you're not a serious candidate."

Shirley McCracken, a declared challenger for the Anaheim City Council, remembers that a neighbor once told her, "I'm not voting for a person that didn't even put a statement. That looks like they're not interested in the election."

For local candidates, the statement fees come due at a bad time--essentially before fund raising can pump resources into a campaign fund, Butterfield said.

The fee is payable when candidacy papers are filed. Countywide, the deadline for turning in candidates papers is August 12.

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