Residents to Decide on Allowing Votes by Mail

Times Staff Writer

When Pasadena voters head to the polls for city and school elections Tuesday, it may be for the last time.

On the ballot, Measure A is asking voters to approve a city charter amendment allowing City Council and school board elections to be held by mail.

"We want to bring in folks who don't normally do it. It might actually generate new ideas and give new vitality to the political process. There's certainly nothing wrong with a radical idea now or then. It's how our country got started," said Pasadena Vice Mayor Paul Little, who is up for re-election.

If approved, the city will follow Burbank, where voters last week approved a similar measure.

Santa Monica voters are testing the vote-by-mail method in a special election on historical preservation. On Feb. 20, ballots were mailed out; they must be returned and counted by March 21.

At least 17 states, including California, allow cities and counties to conduct mail elections. Oregon is the only state to hold all elections by mail.

Turnout in most cities is between 15% and 22%, said Scott Martin, the president of Martin & Chapman Co., an election consulting firm that has handled California elections for 48 years. But 40% to 50% of voters participate in mail balloting, he said.

"People no longer have the luxury of time to go to the ballot. If we make it more convenient for people to vote, they will," said Margarita Campos, Burbank's city clerk.

In Burbank, more people did vote. When the city tested the waters with mail-in voting for a non-candidate special election in October 2001, participation was 34.9% of 55,997 registered voters, Campos said, up from a typical turnout of 19%.

Some do have concerns about voting by mail and, despite positive experiences like Burbank's, "we don't see a big rush toward it," said Peggy Sims, an election research specialist at the Federal Election Commission.

Although mail-in elections reduce costs by eliminating the need for poll workers, voting equipment and supplies, some say money shouldn't be an issue.

"The last time I read the Constitution, voting is pretty high up there. I don't think you should scrimp on costs," said Paul Jaszweski, a member of the 44th Republican Assembly District Central Committee, which includes Pasadena.

Jaszweski said the Pasadena measure is vague and provides few details on how the process will work or whether vote by mail will be used in all elections or just when the City Council chooses.

Little defended the measure, saying, "Anything we can do to facilitate people voting is positive."

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, D.C., said voting by mail is vulnerable to fraud. Voters also could be coerced at "ballot-signing parties," he said.

Gans, who has studied elections for more than 26 years, said an important aspect of American culture is sacrificed with mail-in voting.

"We're losing what is an important communal act -- going to the polls," Gans said.

But some residents already vote by mail through absentee ballots. For example, in the 2001 primary election, 30% of Burbank voters voted absentee, Campos said.

Since 1978, California residents have had the option of voting by absentee ballot for any reason.

A bill passed in 2001 gave California voters the option of becoming permanent absentee voters. As long as residents remain registered voters and vote in every statewide election, they will receive their ballots in the mail.

In the November 2002 general election, 2 million California residents voted absentee -- more than a quarter of all votes cast.

"The trend right now keeps showing an increase. In the 14 city elections we did in 2002, four of the 14 cities had more than 50% of the vote cast by mail ballot," Martin said.

For Santa Monica officials, "it's too soon to tell whether this is a strategy we will want to carry on in the future," Mayor Richard Bloom said, with a reference to the Florida poll debacle in the 2000 presidential election: "We'll see how it goes, but it sure does eliminate that problem with chads."

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