Election Night in San Gabriel last month was like a tense, slow-motion basketball game, with the lead seesawing back and forth late into the evening. Partisans in the hotly contested recall campaign huddled at City Hall in worried little groups or paced the aisles in the City Council chambers, groaning or cheering with the announcement of each new batch of results.
First the pro-recall forces, who wanted to have Vice Mayor Frank Blaszcak thrown out of office, took a slender lead in the ongoing tally posted above the vote-counters. Applause from the north side of the room. Then Blaszcak surged in front by a commanding 99-vote margin with more than half of the votes counted. Cheers from the south side.
But Blaszcak and his supporters hadn't figured on the absentee vote. The "yes" votes (for recall) carried the absentees by a whopping 160-vote margin out of 550 cast. It was, the anti-recall forces conceded, the crusher. The final result, announced the next day: Blaszcak won the precinct-by-precinct vote handily but lost the election by nine votes.
The absentee ballot gambit, with campaign organizations encouraging sympathetic target groups to vote by mail, is becoming a part of the strategy in elections all over California. The technique has been especially effective in initiative, referendum and recall elections, where even small blocs of voters can have a commanding influence.
Once a mere convenience for voters who might have difficulties getting to the polls, the absentee ballot has become an effective tool in skewing the results, researchers say. So successful have some political consultants been in its use that the absentee ballot is beginning to raise some questions about, as one analyst put it, "the potential for abuse."
"There are greater possibilities for voter fraud, as people rely more on a mail-in ballot as opposed to an actual person showing up at the precinct polling place," said Mark DiCamillo, managing director of the San Francisco-based Field Institute, which produces the California poll.
With a large segment of the electorate voting outside of the polls, sometimes as much as four weeks before Election Day, the mail-in ballot has, at the least, produced fundamental changes in the voting process in this state, DiCamillo said.
California has the most liberal absentee ballot law in the country, said William Kimberling, deputy director of the Federal Election Commission Clearing House of Washington. Until 11 years ago, a voter had to have a valid reason--such as being ill, disabled or out of town on Election Day--to qualify to vote absentee. But the so-called Lehman Bill, named for its sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Richard H. Lehman of Fresno (now a U.S. congressman), eliminated all the restrictions. After the bill passed in 1978, anyone who qualified to vote also qualified to use the absentee ballot.
Other states including Washington, Oregon and Texas have since passed similar laws, but none is as loose as California's, Kimberling said.
"It's the double whammy that makes it so remarkable," Kimberling said. "Not only have all the barriers been dropped, but the state facilitates the process" by mailing sample ballots, each including an application for an absentee ballot, to all registered voters.
And campaign organizations have gotten in on the process, printing their own applications for absentee ballots and circulating them among supporters.
"The combination makes absentee voting in California by far the easiest of all the states," said Kimberling.
The result has been some dramatic increases in the numbers of absentee voters. The California Opinion Index has tracked the state's absentees in presidential elections, from 1960, when the mail-in vote was 3.9%, to 1988, when it was 14.1%--one out of every seven voters using absentee ballots.
"It's now a big chunk of the vote," says DiCamillo. "On Election Day now, you have to be aware that the precinct vote is only a portion of the vote."
That first became apparent in the 1982 gubernatorial election, DiCamillo said, when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley held a slim lead until the absentee votes came in. George Deukmejian carried the absentees by better than 2 to 1 and eked out a victory.
DiCamillo's organization has drawn a profile of the absentee voter, based on its own survey and on television network exit polls after the last presidential election. The absentee voter is more likely to be "older, male, more conservative in politics generally," said the opinion index. The absentee voter also "favored the GOP candidates for President and the U.S. Senate to a greater degree than did precinct voters."
Tweaking the electorate with absentee ballots "has become a pretty generalized campaign technique in the past four or five years," says consultant Lynn Wessel, who ran Azusa real estate investor Johnny E. Johnson's unsuccessful 1987 campaign to have the Azusa Green Country Club turned into homes, apartments and light industry.