Absentee voters change election dynamics
North County Times (2010-10-17) Mark Walker
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Absentee voters change election dynamics
CHANCES FADE FOR LAST-MINUTE HIT PIECES AS INCREASING NUMBERS VOTE EARLY
By MARK WALKER - firstname.lastname@example.org
| Posted: Sunday, October 17, 2010 9:03 pm |
Old-hand campaigners are fond of the "October Surprise," that time in the closing weeks before Election Day when strategists unleash last-minute hit pieces that leave opponents little time to respond.
But the popular political tactic is fast becoming a relic, a casualty of the rising number of voters who cast their ballots by mail.
Fully one-half of voters in San Diego County vote by mail while the number is near 40 percent in Riverside County.
The shift is reshaping how campaigns are waged.
"There was a time when campaigns would save their best shots for the very end when voters were paying attention, but you can no longer do that," said San Diego political consultant Tom Shepard, whose firm specializes in managing local candidate and ballot issues. "The debate that would normally take place in the final 10 days now has to largely occur about four weeks out."
That also means smart candidates must wield a two-pronged campaign and carefully manage their budgets, Shepard said.
First, they have to target their message to absentee voters. Then they have to save enough money for a second round of ads and mailers, targeting those who vote at their neighborhood polling places on Election Day.
"Candidates have to start earlier and spread out their resources," said Gary Jacobson, a political science professor at UC San Diego, who agreed that as more people vote early, "it reduces the impact of any last-minute surprises."
States such as California loosened the rules for absentee voters several years ago, leading to ever-higher numbers voting that way.
In 2008, about 30 percent of all votes nationwide came in ahead of the election, either by mail or in person.
The trend picked up steam after the disputed 2000 presidential election led several states to liberalize their rules.
Thirty-three states now offer early voting.
"As more people vote by absentee, campaigns have to gear to the vote-by-mail people," said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont Mc Kenna
College in Los Angeles County. "You certainly can't wait until the end to put out your major television ads and mailings."
The advantage of early voting is clear: Your ballot arrives the first week of October, and you can take your time filling it out and sending it in.
It also means that once the ballot is cast, sophisticated campaigns will have checked and seen that yours has been returned and won't annoy you with more calls or mailers.
Shepard is advising the campaigns of San Diego County Supervisors Bill Horn and Ron Roberts, among others.
Campaigns must have the bulk of the work done by the end of September, he said.
"That means you have to be more aggressive earlier, you have to have your opposition research done and your text for the mailings has to be written," he said.
Early voters provide another key piece of information, Shepard said.
Campaigns can learn from the registrar which voters have returned their ballots.
They won't know how a person voted, but they can contact voters and ask, and get an early idea of how their candidate is faring.
"They end up being pretty good predictors," Shepard said.
Jess Durfee, chairman of the San Diego County Democratic Party, and his counterpart, Tony Krvaric of the county Republican Party, said their party workers targeted absentee voters two weekends ago, dropping off voter guides and candidate literature.
"There's a campaign that's waged starting two weeks ago, and another campaign the last week before the election. From the party perspective, you have to separate the two with a special approach to the absentee voters," Krvaric said.
"What we have is a whole new generation of people voting by mail," Durfee said. "We think that over time, it will dramatically increase the number of people who vote."
Riverside County Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore said about 333,000 of the county's roughly 840,000 registered voters are permanent absentee voters.
"We're largely a commuter county, and we encourage people to vote that way because a lot of times, voters simply can't make it to the polling place on Election Day," she said.
San Diego County Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler said that just less than 700,000 of that county's 1.4 million registered voters are permanent absentee voters.
"A lot of people like the convenience, and we do find that a higher percentage of absentees turn out," she said.
That turnout can run as high as 60 percent of absentee voters, about 10 percentage points higher than polling place voters.
The frustration for candidates such as Ray Lutz, a Democrat running against freshman Republican Duncan Hunter in the 52nd Congressional District, is a lack of debates before absentee voters receive their ballots.
His race had only one debate with all the candidates, an event that was staged Friday.
"Having a debate late in the race is no longer appropriate," he said. "The candidates should debate much earlier, and for Oct. 15 to be the first and the last in this race is a crime."
There's another distinct advantage to the registrar having a high number of ballots already in hand when the polls close at 8 p.m.: They're the first returns counted, and are increasingly reliable in revealing the winners and losers.
Call staff writer Mark Walker at 760-740-3529.