By Gary Walker
Mar Vista residents eager to no longer be inundated with barrages of campaign mailers during election season may still face an uphill battle, despite getting the go-ahead from their community council last month.
The Mar Vista Community Council unanimously approved a resolution May 14 that will ask the Los Angeles City Council to allow residents who choose not to receive campaign mail at their residences to have the option to “opt out” of receiving direct mail from candidates seeking political office.
But representatives from the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder’s office say there are no provisions for such an action to be taken.
“The Registrar-Recorder does not have an ‘opt out’ mechanism in place and such a mechanism is not likely to be established under current law,” county Election Information and Preparation Division Manager Alex Olvera told The Argonaut recently.
Olvera added that his office has not explored the timeline, cost, or viability of any system for such an “opt-out mechanism.”
Supporters of not receiving direct campaign mail cite environmental concerns as well as the sensation of being bombarded by advertisements that they say are often misleading.
Over the last decade, Mar Vista has become one of the region’s leaders in sustainability efforts. Many residents feel that the paper-based advertisements are wasteful and the money used by candidates can be put to better uses.
According to the American Forest & Paper Association, the amount of paper recovered for recycling averaged 334 pounds for each person living in the United States in 2010.
“Since recycling mills tend to be in urban areas, it is likely that the electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels or nuclear power,” said Sherri Akers, who is a member of Mar Vista’s Green Committee and is one of the leaders of “opting out” of unwanted campaign mailers.
Olvera believes Mar Vista is the first community to explore an option that can be implemented for potential voters who do not wish to receive campaign mail.
“To our knowledge, there has not been an official request of this kind from any community,” he said.
Despite the registrar-recorder’s position, Akers remains undeterred in her mission to have the ability to keep election mail out of her mailbox.
“We don’t expect this to be easy or to happen quickly,” she said. “Progress in technology has changed every industry.
“Book and news publishing is moving to digital, music has moved to downloaded forms,” Akers added. “I am sure there was a time when there was resistance to voting by mail or registering to vote on-line.”
Loyola Marymount University professor Richard Fox questioned how such a system could be implemented. “It sounds difficult,” said Fox, who is an expert in elections and political campaigns. “It’s not clear how this would be administered.
“Also, I don’t know if this can be done within the (U.S.) Postal Service.”
Nicholas Antonicello, a Venice Beach resident, takes issue with the concept of Mar Vista residents seeking to keep direct mail of a political nature out of their mailboxes.
“The direct mail industry both private and political employs the services of good-paying jobs and union shops who depend on this revenue to earn a living,” Antonicello wrote in May. “But more importantly, the frequency employed by the direct mail industry is part of a strategy that works, that gives companies a leg up on the competition as well as serving as a communication vehicle for political candidates of all persuasions.”
Antonicello cited a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1970, Rowan vs. United States Post Office as a mechanism that Mar Vista voters and others who see campaign mail as unwanted junk mail can employ if they do not wish to be sent political advertisements.
But Rowan vs. United States Post Office addresses “a pandering advertisement which offers for sale matter which the addressee in his sole discretion believes to be erotically arousing or sexually provocative” and does not touch specifically on “direct mail of a political nature.”
While a citizen can obtain a prohibitory order demanding that they be removed from a mailer’s list, these orders historically have been used to stop unwanted pornographic or obscene advertisements, per Rowan.
Some legal scholars see Rowan as an anti-obscenity statute that does not address campaign direct mail. “In light of the broad interpretation that the Court assigns to § 4009, the possibility exists that parents could prevent their children, even if they are 18 years old, from receiving political, religious, or other materials that the parents find offensive.
“In my view, a statute so construed and applied is not without constitutional difficulties,” wrote Supreme Court Justice William Brennan.
The court held that “the statute allows the addressee unreviewable discretion to decide whether he wishes to receive any further material from a particular sender.
“A vendor does not have a constitutional right to send unwanted material into someone’s home, and a mailer’s right to communicate must stop at the mailbox of an unreceptive addressee,” the court wrote.
Antonicello also pointed out that Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Mar Vista, and his successor Mike Bonin, both used direct mail advertisements in their campaigns.
Rosendahl, who will leave office July 1, said the solution to not seeing a deluge of political advertisements by mail may lie elsewhere. “Public financing of political campaigns is the real answer,” he said. “People should have to pay for their democracy and then we wouldn’t have to worry about all of this campaign mail.”
Fox said determining what is political mail and what isn’t could prove to be a difficult task.
“What if there was an interest group that wanted to educate the public about global warming?” the professor asked. “To some, that could be construed as political mail but to others it may be educational material.”
Olvera said that to date, there is one way to be certain that one will not be contacted by a political campaign or supporters of a candidate or ballot initiative and be overwhelmed by political propaganda throughout election season.
“Because it is legal under the California Government Code and California Elections Code for officeholders, candidates, committees, and other organizations to send out hard copy propaganda to registered voters, one of the only ways at this point in time for voters not to receive mailers, postcards, etc. is to cancel one’s voter registration,” he said.
Akers thinks it is a matter of time until elected officials see the light in moving away from direct mail and allowing their citizens the option of not receiving political advertisements through the mail.
“While progress may be slow, I am confident that our city leaders will not want to stay in the Dark Ages with election campaigning,” she said.