The New Phenomenon of Voting By Mail

The following is an article written by Rose Institute Board member Tony Quinn. It was originally featured in Capital Morning Report on July 18.

The Secretary of State has just released final turnout numbers for the June primary, and they show the strengthening of a trend that is rapidly changing the timing and tactics of all political campaigns. The numbers show that a majority (58 percent) voted absentee; that is, they voted by mail. This is virtually identical to the 59 percent of mail voters in the 2008 primary and should come as no surprise. The percentage of mail ballots has been rising steadily through the years, and has mushroomed in recent elections. In the comparable 2006 primary, 47 percent voted by mail; in 2002 it was 26 percent.

Until the 1970s, you had to be “absent” from home to receive an absentee ballot. Then the law was changed so anyone could obtain one, but you had to ask for an absentee ballot each election. A few years ago, the counties began a “permanent absentee voter” program. Today, millions of voters are classified as “permanent absentees.” They don’t have to ask for an absentee ballot; one is sent to them automatically. Most voters mail in their absentee ballots but many drop them off at the polls on Election Day.

The newly released Secretary of State figures show that most counties reported 60 percent or more voting by mail. In Santa Clara County, 75 percent voted by mail. An anomaly is Los Angeles County, which does not encourage voting by mail. Here only 36 percent voted by mail, and turnout was only 23 percent, ten percent below the state average.

The LA numbers suggest that voting by mail is a now a driver in overall voter turnout.

For instance, nearly 32 percent of voters turned out for the June 22 special election in SD 15, much higher than recent special elections. And the 77.5 percent of mail ballots was also high.

The results, which saw GOP Assemblymember Sam Blakeslee fall just short a majority with 49 percent of the vote to 42 percent for Democrat John Laird, were expected to be much closer. It is probable that Blakeslee’s strong showing resulted from the high absentee turnout as Republicans often do better with absentee voters than Election Day voters.

But there are lessons in the rise in voting by mail for both parties, and for people who follow elections. First, Election Night returns will be far short of the final results, so media reports of an “historically low turnout” Election Night will be wrong when all the votes are counted. The Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College polled all the counties the day after the election and found that 1.3 million ballots still needed to be counted.

However, it should not be up to an academic institution to determine how many votes are uncounted. The Secretary of State maintains a web report on uncounted ballots, but it is not kept up to date as the counties proceed to do their count. The Secretary of State should maintain a daily update as the uncounted ballots are counted.

Secondly, the nature of political campaigns will change; a campaign that waits until the last two weeks to send mail to voters will miss the huge numbers of voters who have cast early absentees. Campaigns are realizing that you can “chase” absentee voters, and find out when they received their ballots and when they cast them. This could mean in some cases going to a voter’s home, picking up the ballot, and delivering it to the county. Smart campaigns time their mail to permanent absentee voters to coincide with the arrival of the ballot at the voter’s home.

There is some evidence the Meg Whitman campaign did this in the primary; if Whitman, or Jerry Brown for that matter, develops a sophisticated way to make sure absentee ballots are returned on time that could decide who wins the governor’s race this fall.

Finally, cash pressed counties would be wise to encourage voting by mail (Oregon already conducts many elections by mail and has found them more economical). Manning fewer precincts on Election Day can save money.

There is no question but that Californians like to vote by mail, making their decisions leisurely over the kitchen table rather than in a polling booth. Some day soon, maybe even this year, a majority of Californians will always vote by mail.

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