Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Absentee voting in California:
a field worker's view


Photo by Irfan Khan / LAT.

As a voter, I love casting my ballot by mail, voting "absentee." I have time to figure out all the obscure propositions and can do my civic duty from home.

As a person who works to maximize turnout for my side in elections, I hate absentee voting. When people vote all at once on Election Day, you know when you have to reach them. If they don't vote, you can figure this out by mid-afternoon and chase them down on the phone or in person. And there is something about participating along with everyone else that helps voters feel that they are performing a meaningful activity. That's good for continued political participation, I think.

Today's San Francisco Chronicle reports that:

Next Tuesday's special election could be the first in which half of all votes cast are by absentee ballot. …

"Last November, absentee voters were 37 percent of the turnout," [Acting Alameda County registrar Elaine] Ginnold said. "In this election, they could make up between 50 percent to 60 percent."

Different types of absentee voters have different voting patterns. Of the absentee ballots mailed out for this election, 613,000 are from voters requesting a ballot specifically for this election.

Those voters tend to have the highest return rate, averaging more than 90 percent. Permanent absentee voters tend to vote at levels 5 percent to 10 percent lower.

From the point of view of a person working to defeat Gov. Arnold's initiatives, this is both good and bad news.

According to today's LA Times the Schwarzenegger hopes to make up what he lacks in volume of support by working selectively to maximize turnout among his supporters: "his campaign strategy relies on relatively few people showing up next Tuesday and large segments of voters staying home."

Gov. Arnold hasn't tried to raise the profile of the election in areas where he won't do well; we are not seeing his ads in the San Francisco Bay Area. And he has hired a micro-targeting firm to reach out to voters on the basis of their consumer habits and TV-viewing preferences.

Pollsters like absentee voting; voters can't change their minds at the last minute. Today's Field poll shows "20 percent of the 1,071 likely voters surveyed Oct. 18 through Sunday already have voted by absentee ballot."

Large scale absentee voting makes campaigning more expensive. For one thing, you have to start sooner as folks may vote weeks early. Further, your TV buys become less and less effective as their target audience shrinks because more people have already voted. Gov. Arnold is running into that today as he has launched a new ad saying taxes will go up if he doesn't get his initiatives passed; too bad, many votes are already in the bag.

For a field operation, absentee voting is an expensive nightmare. County registrars furnish lists of who has voted that can be cross-checked against eligible voter lists. Campaigns compile lists of voters who have requested absentee ballots. Then the campaigns have to try to reach potential voters who are holding onto their absentee ballots and encourage them to get them in. The campaigns have to teach volunteers to explain to voters that they can take their ballots to any poll on election day. The process is a recipe for confusion for any but well-staffed, well-funded organizations. It's only merit is to reduce the number of voters you are trying to reach in 12 intense hours on election day.

And yet, mail-in ballots are clearly one wave of the future. For governments, they are cheap and popular. The state of Oregon does all its elections by mail. I don't know if this is good for democracy, but it is a fact of our lives.

Meanwhile, we still have to get out the vote against Arnold's initiatives on November 8.

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