State Democratic Party targets mail vote to boost L.A. turnout

Los Angeles County is crawling with Democrats – 2.3 million, in fact, far more than the six San Francisco Bay Area counties combined and the foundation of blue clout in an overwhelmingly blue state.

But all those L.A. Democrats have a peculiarity: They don’t like voting by mail.

In part, that stems from county election officials who over the years were not aggressive in developing a vote-by-mail system, Democrats say.

“First, it’s because (former registrar) Connie McCormack made it very difficult for vote by mail and, second, minorities are less trustful in general of voting by mail,” said Democratic consultant Steve Maviglio.

“It’s a giant county and you literally have to open all those things (mailed ballots). In terms of manpower, it’s difficult,” he added. “But a lot of counties have figured out that vote-by-mail actually saves money.”

The logistics of L.A. are daunting, particularly for those Democrats who may have long commutes and longer work days, and who find it difficult to get to the polls.

Getting a ballot to them could make a major difference, said Eric Bauman, chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party.

“The voting day is over by the time they get home,” Bauman said. “That’s the kind of voter, the occasional voter, that you have to work hard to get out to vote. So the solution is to put a ballot in their hands, and that’s the starting point.” That means mailing registration forms to their addresses, then following up with a personal knock on the door.

Another approach: Go to the swearing-in ceremonies for new citizens and encourage voter registration. For Democratic registrants, some nine out of 10 newly registered Democrats opt for vote-by-mail, Bauman said.

Only 19 percent of L.A.’s Democrats, or about 424,800, are registered to permanently vote by mail – less than half the statewide average for Democrats – and their numbers draw down the vote-by-mail overall for the county. Last November, about three in 10 ballots were cast by mail in Los Angeles, the lowest of any county in California and barely half the statewide average of 55 percent for both parties.

Los Angeles’ Republicans, meanwhile, while numerically fewer by half, vote by mail in a higher proportion than Democrats. The latest figures available, as of June 27, show GOP registration at 1.02 million, with some about 276,527 registered as permanent mail voters – or about 27 percent, or 8 percent higher than Democrats, said county elections official Eileen Shea.

In response, Democrats are putting together a get-out-the-vote effort targeting mail-in voters on an unprecedented scale, according to party officials, that seeks to boost vote-by-mail turnout by at least 10 percent for the 2012 elections. The margin not only could prove decisive in statewide elections, it also could decide races in new, high competitive legislative and congressional districts.

At first blush, whether one votes by mail or at a neighborhood precinct would seem to make little difference in the final tally.

But in fact, people who vote by mail do so in a higher proportion than precinct voters. For Democrats, then, the math is simple: If more vote-by-mail voters cast ballots, more Democratic votes will be counted and that could mean the difference in a close election.

The 2010 race for attorney general prompted the party’s new look at mail balloting: Democrat Kamala Harris’ cliff-hanger victory over GOP challenger and L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley – she won statewide by less than 100,000 votes – gave L.A. Democratic strategists pause.  A higher turnout in L.A. would have made the race far less close, they say.

Meanwhile, the county’s Democratic turnout trails the Democrats’ statewide average by about 6 percentage points, 60 percent to 54 percent. Boosting L.A.’s Democratic count to at least the statewide average is a top priority for 2012.

Political observers are divided about why L.A. Democrats should be less inclined to vote by mail than their counterparts elsewhere. Proportionately, Democrats vote by mail less than Republicans – an irony since an early push to ease restrictions on absentee balloting were spearheaded by Democrats to boost their chances at the polls.

But whatever the reason, Democratic voters shun the mails in L.A.

“You can’t discount the social factor,” said Democratic strategist Garry South. “I’ve found it in older people who do not trust the mail. They mark their ballot and they would rather be there and put it in the box themselves and get the receipt.”

In precinct voting, the GOTV effort typically is a four-day operation, starting on the Saturday before an election and continuing through election day the following Tuesday. But in mail voting, the GOTV effort can get under-way 30 days out from the election.

On the down side is money: Last month, the newly approved budget tossed out some $33 million destined to pay to pay for vote-by-mail in the counties. Most counties will continue to provide vote by mail – including Los Angeles – but it will be on their own dime.

 “The main target here is not only to bump their numbers statewide, but run up the numbers in the district races as well,” Maviglio said.

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