Polling place in Tracy, CA, November 2006. Will places like this go the way of the horse?
A recent post caused some discussion on and off line about absentee voting. It seemed useful to expand on the topic.
"Convenience voting" is what people who study elections call all the varied systems by which we now vote prior to Election Day. These include vote by mail (universal in Oregon, though the state provides Election Day drop off points for ballots); no excuse "absentee voting" (in California some 20-30 percent of the electorate are on "permanent absentee" lists, automatically receiving their ballots by mail); and "early voting sites," polling places open before the Election Day ("in 2004, 60 percent of those who voted in New Mexico had done so by early or absentee voting." Free New Mexican.)
Some facts about convenience voting are well documented. [pdf]
- the availability of this option increases turnout, but only slightly;
- this slight increase in turnout comes from among voters who already accustomed to vote;
- early voting systems are notably unsuccessful in turning out new, unlikely, potential voters;
- voters like convenience voting.
What convenience voting means to campaigns is less certain. We are currently getting stories about how presidential campaigns are planning for California's huge number of "permanent absentees." Many of these people could vote before the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary.
I first saw large scale convenience voting efforts by a campaign in 1994. Kathleen Brown, daughter of Governor Pat, sister of Governor Jerry, was running for ... Governor of California. Incumbent Republican Pete Wilson fired up our state's latent anti-immigrant xenophobia and came from behind to beat her (despite thereby trashing the Republican brand with the folks who are California's future and handing the party apparatus over to some wacky rightwingers.)
Brown's strategist, San Francisco consultant Clint Reilly, believed that she could beat the tide by investing in an unprecedented campaign to win absentee votes. The campaign would hire huge numbers of field staff who would recruit even greater numbers of volunteers who would bring in vast numbers of absentee votes and pull victory from the jaws of defeat. Didn't happen. They couldn't find enough staff and the pressure to get numbers was so unrelenting and unrealistic that staff quit. The difficult process of tracking a potential vote through 1) an "absentee request" to country voting officials, 2) then verifying that the ballot was mailed to the voter, 3) then making sure the voter returned the ballot, 4) then removing the voter from the list "to be worked" was more than the campaign proved able to keep up with. By Election Day, Brown headquarters were depressing, empty caverns where busy workers should have been.
The capacity of elections officials and campaigns to track who has voted "early" in real time is much greater today. But convenience voting still mesmerizes and confounds campaign strategists -- and is an arena of enduring mythology. For a sample from 2006, see this glowing report of a Republican absentee push -- an effort that met and exceeded it goals, but didn't win in Michigan in a Democratic year.
Democratic campaigns often get exercised because Republicans have historically been better at collecting early votes than Democrats. It is not hard to see where the disparity comes from -- historically Republican campaigns have enjoyed a money advantage and have been working a more steady base vote than Democrats. I've often been told: "if we have 40 percent of the absentees, our Democratic candidate will win." And this has been true. But the lesson I take from this is not necessarily that Democrats should try to compete on the Republicans' turf by making more convenience voters. We should work on how better to compete on our own turf, among our wide swath of potential, but less frequent, Democratic voters who need different, more personal, contacts to get them out.
Consultants like to say that bringing in absentee votes "puts them in the bank." Once people have voted, they can't be swayed by last minute ads or scandals -- and campaigns no longer have to work to turn them out. This may occasionally play a role in victory -- but margins have to be pretty tight before a last minute revelation can change the result. However, this consideration might encourage presidential campaigns that can afford it to work California hard in the later part of 2007 -- if the state's huge primary can be partially completed before any shocks to frontrunners to come out of Iowa and New Hampshire, this will be a great advantage. Expect lots of Clinton mail and maybe something from Obama next fall if you are a Democratic permanent absentee California voter.
Karl Kurtz at The Thicket states the structural objection that some raise to convenience voting:
Though there is probably no way to stem the tide on this, I think progressive electoral strategists have to take this thinking very seriously. We are chronically trying to encourage a habit of voting among groups -- new citizens, young people, poor people -- who need support and encouragement to participate. Insofar as voting is a private thing you do by yourself in your home, folks who aren't accustomed to it are less likely to get around to it. Isolation can breed alienation from participation. Community reinforcement helps turn out infrequent voters.
Doing the community's business of citizenship is not something to live out alone. Community organizations need to experiment with ways to make voting a more collective experience. Of course every person's ballot is secret, but voting need not be so lonely as convenience systems tend to make it. Some experiments have included group classes in using new voting systems (such as when touch screens have replaced punch card ballots) and picnics followed by group walks to early voting sites. Finding ways to increase the sense of community, as well as of convenience, is a winning strategy, and a necessity, for progressive electoral organizers.