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If L.A. voted by mail, turnout and costs would rise

City clerk's report finds similar increases in participation, but not in cost, for local elections that are not citywide.

December 04, 2009|By Phil Willon

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 Thursday.

However, the use of vote-by-mail balloting could be a good option for small special elections that are not citywide, 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 are not usually held at the same time as statewide or national elections.

From 1978 to 2008, the average city turnout for a mayoral election was 30%; it was 15% for a municipal election that is not citywide.

The average city turnout for a gubernatorial election during that time 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, Los Angeles 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, because the City Charter, Los Angeles' 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.

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