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Informed Opinions on Today's Topics : More Voters Casting Ballots Through Mail

November 11, 1994|ANTONIO OLIVO and ALICIA DOYLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A record number of California voters opted to cast their ballots by mail in Tuesday's election. According to California Field Poll estimates, more than 2 million Californians, or about 23% of the 8.75 million people who voted, mailed in absentee ballots instead of reporting to their precincts.

Originally intended to accommodate those who would be out of the state or those who could not vote in person because of disability, illness or economic hardship, absentee ballots have been embraced by an increasing segment of California voters during the last 15 years. Field Poll figures show that the percentage of voting Californians requesting absentee ballots went from 4.4% in 1978 to 9% in 1986 to this year's record-breaking 23%.

With voter turnout at the polls continuing to decline, some see absentee ballots as a way to stimulate greater participation in the electoral process.

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Will absentee ballots play a more significant role in future elections?

John Peschong, executive director, California Republican Party:

"We have always had an extensive absentee ballot program. We sent out absentee ballot applications to our constituents with a message on crimes occurring in their counties. Then, we mailed messages on illegal immigration, welfare and, finally, a letter from (former President) Ronald Reagan, all with a reminder to vote. We also followed those up with phone calls. Our program has been successful. It's been the marginal difference in some close campaigns."

Carol Blad, chairwoman, Democratic Party, San Fernando Valley:

"It's absolutely the best thing in the world for voting. We need to increase voter participation, and the way to do that is by enabling people to vote in their own home and mail it out. So many things happen at the last minute that can prevent people from voting . . . like travel for business or a family emergency. It would be different if we had a local registrar of voters' office. But anyone in the Valley who wants to vote early has to go all the way to Downey. . . Now, people can be prepared and get an absentee ballot ahead of time in case of any last minute glitches.

Mark Di Camillo, director of the California Field Poll:

"People who are exposed to voting by way of the absentee ballot tend to do it again. It's a growing phenomenon because it's an easy way to vote. You can do it over a long period of time at your own pace and at home. The fact that California ballots are generally long makes it especially becoming. Also, organizers of campaigns are now motivating people to vote absentee so they can get votes in the bank. If I were a community organizer and were trying to mine a particular vote, one of the tools I'd use would be absentee voting. It's a much lower hurdle for first-time voters to get over. They would feel less inhibited in voting by mail. It would provide greater organizational control. Whereas, traditionally you can only hope potential constituents will turn out at the polls, with absentees, you have several weeks to find out if they mailed in their ballots. Then, you can follow up with reminder phone calls. This is a great way to get more people in the voting mainstream."

Larry Berg, director of Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics:

"I haven't voted in a polling booth in years. This year, I voted two or three days after I received my absentee ballot in the mail. They could change the dynamics of a campaign. People may have already voted before the last three weeks of a campaign, which is when the heavy stuff usually shows up in the press. Back in the '60s, you had to have a valid reason to obtain an absentee ballot. Now, it's part of a trend to facilitate voting. Without these kinds of things in operation, voter turnout ratios would be worse than they already are. I only wonder why we couldn't count absentee ballots as soon as they come in. Then, we wouldn't have to wait so long to find out how many votes (a particular campaign) received."

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