Absentee Ballot – LA Times
Politics: Last-minute attack ads may lose some effectiveness. But campaigns still hope to catch voters who procrastinate on mailing.
SACRAMENTO — With growing numbers of California voters requesting absentee ballots comes a new reality for the state’s political campaigns: Bombarding people with attack ads in the final weeks of a race is losing some of its punch.
Increasingly, candidates for everything from city council to Congress are aiming propaganda at voters in phases, hoping first to persuade early voters before they cast ballots by mail, and then to influence voters who go to the polls.
Mirroring national trends, absentee ballot use has swelled in California from 2.6% of all ballots cast in 1962 to 24.7% in the last gubernatorial election in 1998. And Secretary of State Bill Jones is predicting that it could represent 30% of the overall vote this election, a new high. Although some other experts say that estimate may be high, they agree that absentee voters are an increasingly significant part of the electorate.
“It has changed the calendar for mailings because so many votes are cast before election day,” Darry Sragow, the consultant overseeing this season’s 80 state Assembly races for Democrats, said of the rising tally.
Although states such as Washington and Oregon have long had a high percentage of early voters–the entire state of Oregon is voting by mail this month under a new law–some California politicians are still adjusting to the trend. Others, particularly Republicans, who were the first to employ large-scale absentee voting drives here, are ahead of the game.
“We have to look at the entire month of October and early November as election day,” said Dave Gilliard, the GOP campaign consultant running Republican Mike Stoker’s race to unseat Democratic Rep. Lois Capps in Santa Barbara.
The more organized campaigns use county election databases to scratch voters who return absentee ballots from last-minute mailing lists, knowing those voters have made their decisions.
Many campaigns are launching sophisticated drives to promote absentee voting, mobilizing core voters early and using the information they glean to try for political advantage. Newspapers, realizing voters need information sooner, are endorsing candidates earlier.
Some campaigns are even questioning the wisdom of the last-minute political “hit piece,” realizing that such attacks increasingly miss much of the electorate.
However, some traditionalists question the impact of these tactics, noting that the hullabaloo over absentee voting obscures a critical fact: Many absentee voters procrastinate about turning in their ballots. And absentee voters tend to be extremely partisan, not the undecided type courted so doggedly by campaigns in close contests.
California Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland said a party study of the Los Angeles region after the 1996 elections found that 50% of absentee voters waited until the final few days.
“Often, I think it’s just a waste of money,” said Parke Skelton, the Democratic consultant running many of Southern California’s hottest campaigns, including Sen. Adam Schiff’s effort to unseat Rep. James Rogan, the nation’s most expensive House race. “A substantial portion of the absentees come in during the last two days. Many are actually walked in on election day.”