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Election stirs debate on mail-in voting

Just 4% of registered voters went to precincts to elect Assemblyman Mike Duvall's successor.

November 19, 2009|Jean Merl

Dismal turnout at the polls in Tuesday's special election to fill Mike Duvall's former Assembly seat is adding to the debate over wider use of mail-only elections.

Just 4% of registered voters in the 72nd Assembly District cast ballots at precincts in the election.

Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby finished first in a field of five.

Mail voters accounted for 14%, bringing the total turnout to 18% of the district's 219,961 registered voters.

Norby won 37%, or 14,827 of the 39,917 votes cast, according to unofficial election returns.

That was short of the majority needed to win outright, so in a Jan. 12 runoff he will face Democrat John MacMurray, who finished second with 27%, and Jane Rands of the Green Party, who received nearly 3%.

Norby's chief competitor in the strongly GOP district was longtime Republican activist Linda Ackerman, who came in third with almost 20%. Another Republican, political newcomer Richard Faher, finished fourth with 13%.

Faher said Wednesday that he will continue to press for converting California's full-time Legislature back to part-time.

The special election was necessitated by Republican Duvall's abrupt resignation in September after the married legislator's remarks to a colleague about sexual exploits with two lobbyists were broadcast.

The campaign quickly became a slugfest. Norby called Ackerman a carpetbagger because she had moved into the district from Irvine to run for the seat.

She questioned his ethics, citing a sexual harassment finding by a jury without also saying it was later reversed by an appeals court.

As the ballot counting ended, however, Ackerman struck a conciliatory tone.

"I want to congratulate Supervisor Norby on his hard-fought and successful campaign," Ackerman said in a written statement.

She also promised to continue working "to elect conservative leaders who will move our state, our country and our party forward."

A campaign aide said Wednesday that Ackerman had not yet announced whether she would endorse Norby in the runoff. He is the strong favorite in the district, in which 43% of voters are Republicans.

Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley, who has not taken a position on the issue of all-mail elections, said nearly 77% of Tuesday's ballots were cast by mail, and he estimated that the tab for precinct operations for the primary and the runoff would total $80,000.

"As the administrator of elections, I stay out" of the policymaking arena, Kelley said Wednesday. "There certainly are varying viewpoints on that issue . . . but I don't see it on the horizon at this point."

Fred Smoller, director of a public administration master's degree program at Brandman University in Orange County, said the money saved on precinct operations in this contest could have paid for a teacher or another pressing need.

With vote-by-mail percentages on the rise in California and elsewhere, Smoller criticized the governor for vetoing legislation last month that would have permitted Yolo and Santa Clara counties to experiment with all-mail balloting.

"Elections are really expensive," and turnout typically is low, Smoller said. "Shouldn't we at least put this on the table?"

In his veto message, the governor said the measure, Assembly Bill 1228, could have made it more difficult for those who prefer to vote in person.

The runoff candidates expressed mixed views on the issue.

Rands, the Green Party candidate, said she would prefer an "instant runoff" system in which voters rank all candidates in order of preference and would not require a second election.

She thinks an all-mail system might confuse those who prefer to go to precincts and who might throw away their mail ballots without realizing that polling places no longer existed.

MacMurray favors a vote-by-mail system, and not only for special elections. He said that such a system in Oregon has improved participation.

Norby said he would be willing to consider all-mail balloting for special elections in which precinct turnout is expected to be very low.

Although he said he cherishes the "civic ritual of going to the polls," he also loved vinyl records, "but I don't listen to them anymore."

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jean.merl@latimes.com

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