Mail-only voting configuration shot down by Culver Council

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Rejecting a call for reconfiguring their municipal electoral system for the second time in two years, the Culver City City Council voted against switching from the traditional voting methods to an all-mail in system at its Dec. 11 meeting.

City leaders turned down a similar proposal in 2015.

If the council had voted in favor of the change, it would have created an ordinance declaring that all future elections in Culver City would be conducted solely through the mail and would have been implemented in time for the April 2018 municipal election.

Proponents point to a University of California at Davis research study that indicated voters who live in jurisdictions with an all-mail process have seen voting numbers increase over a period of years.

 But Councilwoman Meghan Sahli-Wells, who voted against changing to an all-mail in system, noted in the same study that some of the increases were only temporary and the all-mail electorate is usually less diverse.

“They tend to be older and whiter,” she said. “To make this change now would be confusing.”

The UC Davis analysis cited Colorado, a state that passed legislation in 2013 mandating that all eligible voters be mailed a vote by mail ballot for most elections. While elections officials noticed an uptick in voter participation the following year, the increase reflected a trend of increased voting in Colorado since 1994.

Supporters of voting by mail also say municipalities save money by consolidating or eliminating polling places as well as the cost of sending out voter sample ballots instead of voter digests.

The city’s elections consultant, Martin &Chapman, claims cities save 10-15% by holding all mail-in elections instead of using traditional polling locations because the expense of finding, training and paying poll workers and locating voting locations would be eliminated.

Councilman Jim Clarke, who was one of the two votes in favor of everyone voting by mail, said the state was planning to change to this electoral system eventually and Culver City could get ahead of the movement by changing now.

“Over 60% of the people who voted in our elections voted by mail,” Clarke noted, using the same argument that he offered in 2015.

 Former City Council candidate Stephen Murray supports a vote by mail system, for many of the same reasons offered by Clarke. But as Sahli-Wells noted, he pointed out that changing to such a system might not raise voting numbers.

“We might lose some of those [more diverse voters] in a general election,” he said.

Yumi Mandt- Rauch, a Fox Hill resident, likes the traditional voting locations and voting booths. “Emotionally, I prefer the old fashioned way. I think for this election, it’s better to stay the way that it is now,” said Mandt-Rauch, citing the possibility of confusion if a change was made.

Sahli-Wells, who was joined by Mayor Jeffery Cooper and Vice Mayor Thomas Small in voting against the proposal, said Culver City voters will be voting on a ballot initiative to consolidate its elections with state and national elections next year, which would move elections to November, a move that some elections observers think could increase voting.

She recommended waiting until then instead of moving to an all-mail in system now.  “Changing before the change is the opposite of increasing voter turnout. It increases voter confusion,” the councilwoman said of the vote by mail proposal. “I want to have more options for voters, not less options.”

Small said raising the level of voter participation should be the council’s end goal but he wasn’t certain all-mail voting is the way to do it, but thinks consolidating elections might.

“The sooner the better,” Small said in an interview before the meeting. “The goal should be to make voting as easy as possible.”

Like many municipalities, Culver City has a dismal voting record in local elections.  But in 2016, the city hired See Political— a Santa Monica-based nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that seeks to inform the public about elections through videos and animation— to conduct its voter education campaign.

The results produced Culver City highest turnout on record—23%.

That number far exceeds prior years. By contrast, only 14.2% voter participated in the 2014 city election.

 Gary Walker contributed to this story.