Huizar proposes conducting Los Angeles city elections by mail

Looking to boost voter turnout while cutting costs, Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar is crafting a ballot measure that would allow future city elections to be conducted almost entirely by mail.

FOR THE RECORD: An article in the Sept. 25 LATExtra section about plans for a ballot measure that would allow Los Angeles city elections to be conducted almost entirely by mail incorrectly identified a business owner running for Los Angeles City Council in a district stretching from Boyle Heights to Eagle Rock. His name is Rudy Martinez, not Rudy Bermudez.

Huizar plans next week to unveil three proposals for the March 2011 ballot that would revamp the city’s electoral process, including one that would allow every voter to receive an absentee ballot.

Under such a system, the city would probably reduce the number of polling places while relying on larger, professionally staffed “neighborhood vote centers” where ballots could be delivered if they had not been mailed in time.

Huizar said the expanded mail-in ballot arrangement initially would apply only to special elections, those held because an office has unexpectedly become vacant. But he would like the system to eventually apply to every city election.

“We have folks with difficult work schedules, folks with difficult family obligations, and many times they can’t get to the voting booth,” he said. “This gives them an easier option.”

The concept is one of several being proposed for the March election. Several council members also intend to ask voters to install a ratepayer advocate at the Department of Water and Power.

Meanwhile, Council President Eric Garcetti called Friday for a measure that would bar bidders on city contracts from giving campaign contributions to candidates.

Huizar’s proposals focus on voter participation, which in Los Angeles is consistently lower in municipal races than it is in state and national contests, according to city election officials. Turnout in the March 2009 city election was 17.9%, with 35% of those mailing their ballots. Two years earlier, turnout was 11.1%, with 45% voting by mail.

Huizar said he also plans to submit a proposal to increase the amount of taxpayer funding for city candidates. And he wants a measure that would change city elections to a system of “instant runoff voting,” which would allow voters to rank their top three candidates in order of preference.

That concept would dramatically change to the way results are tallied. In races in which no candidate receives a majority of the vote, second-place and possibly even third-place rankings would be tabulated in order to identify the winner, said Chris Garcia, project coordinator for the city clerk’s office.

The system, which is used by San Francisco and will soon be tried by voters in Oakland and Berkeley, would eliminate the need for a runoff election. That could save from $3 million to $5 million, according to a Huizar aide.

Huizar’s proposals have drawn support from California Common Cause, a nonprofit group looking for ways to increase voter participation. Kathay Feng, the group’s executive director, said the large number of polling places across the city should be replaced by a more modest number of voting centers that are larger and run by paid election workers.

“We have a lot of polling places that are located in places that are inaccessible, that are intimidating,” Feng said. “They [are] in Elks lodges and in backyards — places that are not inviting to the voter.”

Huizar is up for reelection in March, in a district stretching from Boyle Heights to Eagle Rock.

One of his opponents, business owner Rudy Bermudez, voiced doubts about the concept of instant runoff voting. Under that system, a candidate who is ranked first by the greatest number of people would not necessarily win the election, Bermudez said.

“It will just confuse the voter,” he added.