Absent But Not Forgotten
These days, absentee voters have the power.
Thursday, October 12, 2000
Saying that Election Day is Nov. 7 is not the whole truth. It''s one of those little white lies people embrace because it''s convenient to do so, like accepting that Christ was born on December 25 or that Christopher Columbus discovered America.
If you want to get technical about it, saying that Nov. 7 is Election Day is only about two-thirds true. For those brave souls running political campaigns, Election Day started on Monday, when election departments across the state commenced passing out absentee ballots to those who requested them. In Monterey County, about one-third of voters will vote from home as early as 29 days before Election Day; 32 percent of the electorate voted absentee ballot four years ago, which is pretty typical in California, and that number is expected to rise.
"It''s a vehicle that has made voting more convenient for our busy society," says Monterey County Registrar of Voters Tony Anchundo. "I suspect we will have more than 30 percent of those who will vote voting by absentee ballot, and that number keeps going up."
In fact, the California Secretary of State has projected that November 2000 will see an all-time high in votes cast by absentee ballot. Voters are finding that voting by absentee ballot is easier and less time-consuming than fighting traffic or trying to juggle a work-and-commute schedule to get to the booth. It allows voters to skip the polls and vote in the comfort of their homes, sort of like the home shopping network or paying bills online. And anyone can do it. About 8,000 voters in Monterey County have permanent absentee status because of a disability or other constraints that keep them homebound; those folks automatically get an absentee ballot in the mail every election year. No one has to give a reason for voting absentee, but they do have to apply for a ballot each year.
What has been discovered by voters over the years to be a convenient way of voting has also been discovered by campaigns as a useful way to target voters and track results. In fact, campaigns have encouraged absentee voting. Between 1986 and 1988, Anchundo says the number of Californians voting absentee jumped more than 15 percent. One reason for that rise is an increasing trend among political campaigns to mail out their own absentee ballot applications along with campaign literature.
According to state law, campaigns can send out absentee ballot applications and have them returned directly to their headquarters before they pass them on to the county elections department.
"Many of the campaigns realized that by taking advantage of third-party [absentee ballot] applications, it''s an opportunity to get their message out and also an opportunity to track voters," Anchundo says. Over the years, as absentee voting has increased, those votes have become campaigns'' "Achilles heel or the Holy Grail, depending on how one looks at it," he says.
In today''s political world, a campaign that is unsuccessful at reaching absentee voters is a campaign destined for defeat. "You cannot run a campaign without an absentee campaign," says Angel Garcia, campaign consultant for 28th district Assembly candidate Jeff Denham. "If you don''t, you''re missing one of the heartthrobs of a campaign."
Sophisticated campaigns with the money to send out bulk mailings can issue absentee applications and target would-be voters sympathetic to their cause (candidates don''t want to send an application to someone likely to vote against them). They also use information from the ballot application to create a data base of potential votes. In this year''s election, supporters of Proposition 38, the school vouchers initiative, have produced one of the slicker mail pieces with attached absentee application. In the heated 28th district Assembly race, both the Denham and Salinas camps are following suit.
Targeting absentees can do a number of things to help a campaign. While the absentee voter still casts a secret ballot, it''s assumed that if a voter responds to a mail piece and returns the application, then that''s a vote in the bag. It also determines the timing of a campaign. By tracking absentee applications, campaigners know when a particular voter receives their ballot, so mail pieces and phone calls can be timed accordingly. Obviously, spending resources to sway a voter who has already cast her ballot is a waste.
Bill Monning, whose grassroots bid for Congress in the 1993 special election to fill Leon Panetta''a seat narrowly fell to Sam Farr by about 3,000 votes, knows all too well the importance of targeting absentee voters. Monning won at the polls, but Farr''s target campaigning to absentee voters--and the war chest to fund expensive direct mail pieces--scored him enough of those votes to pull off the victory.
"Sam, as an incumbent state legislator with name recognition and a budget, was able to use that to get people to vote absentee and get their votes in early," Monning says. Farr''s ability to pull in votes early, before the lesser-known Monning became a more recognizable figure in the campaign, worked to his advantage.
Without a doubt the absentee vote complicates the political game for those who play it. "[Absentee voting] basically changes campaign dynamics," says Bob McKenzie, a public affairs consultant who also runs several local campaigns. "In effect you have to run two campaigns, not one."