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In 7th District, It’s Jab Foes, Hook Votes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last race without an incumbent was won by 234 votes out of 19,000 cast.

Next month’s special election for the 7th City Council District seat was triggered by Richard Alarcon’s election to the state Senate by just 29 votes out of 77,000 cast.

Margins that slim in the northeast San Fernando Valley mean one thing to the six candidates now running hard to succeed Alarcon: absentee ballots.

Candidates are trying to sew up as much of the vote as they can before election day April 13 by placing 20,000 absentee ballot applications into the hands of likely voters. That is more than the number who voted in 1997 and 1993 elections in the district.

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Whether they arrive by mail or are hand-delivered by precinct walkers, the applications for absentee ballots are accompanied by a campaign brochure, in hopes of putting the candidate’s name in the mind of the voter.

“The idea is now they know me, so once they get the absentee ballot back, they will remember me and my proposals,” said Tony Lopez, who has sent out 2,000 absentee ballot applications along with a letter introducing him and his campaign platform.

The use of absentee ballots as a campaign strategy is relatively new, according to Deputy City Clerk Kris Heffron, who said it became more prevalent about a decade ago.

Looking for Those With Voting History

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In the early ‘80s, absentee voters accounted for 6% to 7% of ballots cast. In contrast, last year about 15% of voters cast ballots by mail. “Candidates seemed to recognize that it’s a valuable tool for getting people to vote,” Heffron said.

The tactic is simple. Campaign strategists arm themselves with lists of the people who have consistently voted in the last few 7th District elections. Applications to vote absentee--and the accompanying campaign literature--are put into the hands of residents most likely to use them.

Many candidates are coupling their vote-by-mail effort with a strong get-out-the-vote program on election day.

With little else that is compelling on the same ballot--a police-fire bond measure will also be decided--voter turnout in next month’s primary is expected to be low.

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Given that expectation, Barbara Perkins, another candidate in the 7th District, said she also is campaigning with absentee ballots.

“It’s very important in low-turnout elections to get to the voters,” she said.

The biggest absentee campaigns are being run by Corinne Sanchez and Alex Padilla, who are by far the two best-funded candidates.

Sanchez says she has mailed 10,000 applications with a campaign brochure to likely voters, while Padilla has volunteers hand-delivering 5,000 applications to those who have a history of voting.

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“Everyone has, over the years, felt that absentees can make a difference in a close race,” said Rick Taylor, a campaign consultant for Padilla.

No Way to Tell If Those Contacted Voted

Unlike many cities, Los Angeles prohibits campaign workers who circulate applications from collecting them from voters. Heffron said the prohibition is meant to protect the privacy of voters and to avoid the problems of misuse that have occurred elsewhere.

The rule means it is impossible for candidates to tell whether the voters they contact actually turn in the applications.

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“Absentees are tough in this city because we have no way of knowing who is sending them in,” Taylor said.

Still, they have become a key strategy in city elections because in low-turnout contests every vote can count.

The last day to apply to vote absentee is April 6, and the last day to turn in absentee votes is April 12, the day before the election.

Vote-by-Mail Effort Still Supplemental

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Candidate Raul Godinez II said he does not think absentee ballots will win or lose the election, but that they are an important element.

Godinez is sending out about 3,600 applications along with his campaign brochures.

But Godinez said he is not depending on the mail vote to carry the day. He and all the other candidates are also walking door-to-door.

Indeed, the vote-by-mail strategy is far from foolproof.

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In Alarcon’s victory last summer, he won despite the fact that absentee voters preferred his opponent, 8,704 to 5,375.


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