Success of mail-in ballots lengthens campaign, candidates say

More Glendale voters used the postal service to cast their votes than a polling center ballot box for the election on Tuesday, a trend that’s been on the rise in the city — and across the state — now for years.

The shift, candidates and elections experts say, has meant harder and longer campaigns that must capture voters over a much longer period of time.

“You have to make sure you get your message out there in time for the earlier voters,” said Lori Cox Han, professor of political science at Chapman University.

City Council incumbent Laura Friedman’s campaign was a case in point. She timed her television ads, which ran on both cable and broadcast channels, to air around the time the sample ballots arrived.

“The polls were open as soon as those absentee ballot were in their hands,” said Friedman, who, according to unofficial results released this week, recaptured her seat.

About 62% of voters in Tuesday’s municipal election voted by mail, roughly the same as 2011, but up 5% since 2007.

Top candidates said they paid close attention to absentee voters, who are playing an increasingly important role in municipal elections. Plus, if a campaign gets a voter to turn in an absentee ballot early, that’s one less person that might skip going to the polls on Election Day, experts said.

It’s especially important for underdogs, who have a harder time generating mass voter interest, said Jaime Regalado, a political analyst and professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles.

“You need to make things easier for voters or they will not vote,” Regalado said. “Typical American voters are lazy, especially in and around Los Angeles.”

Challenger Chahe Keuroghelian — who is currently 262 votes behind third place City Council candidate Zareh Sinanyan — said after running five times for the seat, this election marked the first cycle in which he focused on registering absentee voters.

“I wanted to energize the voters to participate,” Keuroghelian said.

Roughly 3,500 late vote-by-mail and provisional ballots have yet to be counted, which could sway the ultimate outcome of the preliminary results, which have Councilman Ara Najarian in first place, followed by Friedman and Sinanyan.

Najarian and Sinanyan had volunteers contact registered absentee voters to remind them to send in their ballots. Friedman also pinpointed absentee voters, but used early voting reports to avoid those who had already sent in their ballots.

“We didn’t want to waste their time,” Friedman said.

Although the overall voter turnout was low, Sinanyan said it would have been worse if candidates had not accentuated vote-by-mail. So far, 20,343 voters had been tallied after Tuesday and of those, 12,179 were sent by mail.

“Imagine if there was no robust vote-by-mail effort,” Sinanyan said.

Of the roughly 10,250 early vote-by-mail ballots sent in before Monday, 51% were from Armenians, according to Norwalk-based Political Data Inc., an elections consulting firm.

Paul Mitchell, a Political Data Inc. consultant, said Armenians have made up the bulk of absentee voters for nearly a decade. Glendale has one of the largest populations of Armenians outside of Armenia.

“The political leadership among Armenians realized ‘If we make our voters vote-by-mail, then we can win these elections,’” Mitchell said.

However, Los Angeles County has one of the lowest percentages of permanent absentee voters in the state. Less than a quarter of its registered voters are permanent absentees, compared to more than half statewide, Mitchell said.

Douglas Johnson, a fellow at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College, said he expected the number of absentee ballots to be high because the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder recently encouraged people to sign up for permanent absentee status.

While increasing absentee ballots may boost turnout in some cases, it could also mean voters aren’t impacted by last-minute campaign messages or snafus, experts said.

City Clerk Ardy Kassakhian said he’s not convinced the surge in permanent absentee voters is cause for switching to an all-mail elections system because there are still those who want to cast their ballots in person.

Some jurisdictions switch to all-mail systems to save money or increase turnout. Burbank switched to all-mail balloting in 2005.

Kassakhian said he would prefer early voting — or a week of open polling centers — as one way to increase turnout.

“My goal isn’t necessarily to decrease the amount of work, but to provide the best elections possible,” he said.


Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.

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