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GOP Strategy on Absentee Vote Serves Democrats Well


SANTA ANA — After the contentious 1982 campaign for California governor, voters went to bed on election night knowing that former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley was ahead of Republican Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian.

A prominent California pollster announced his exit polls showed Bradley would prevail, and one large newspaper even declared him the winner in its first edition under the headline, "First black governor."

Then came the surprise that changed the face of California elections for good. A well-executed Republican strategy to nudge occasional voters into casting absentee ballots pushed Deukmejian ahead of Bradley and into the first of his two terms as governor.

By seizing that same strategy, Democrat Loretta Sanchez whizzed past Republican Rep. Robert K. Dornan and appeared to be on her way to one of the most stunning upsets ever in Orange County politics.

With $75,000 in funds to get out the absentee vote--pooled by Sanchez, state Assembly Democratic candidate Lou Correa and the Clinton-Gore campaign--Orange County Democrats shocked Republicans by perfectly executing the Republican absentee strategy in Orange County.

"Sanchez ran an entire absentee program and Dornan failed to do any absentee campaigning," said Mark Thompson, an Irvine political consultant who advised the campaign of Assemblyman Jim Morrissey in the 69th Assembly race. "If we lose, I'm blaming Dornan."

Absentee voters have become steadily more important since 1978, when the state first allowed anyone to vote in advance, not just those unable to get to their polling place. In fact, absentee votes are still being counted in three state Assembly and two state Senate races.

Today, because nearly one of four votes in California are cast by absentee ballots, political consultants pay careful attention to elections likely to be close and squirrel away money to crank up the absentee turnout.

Veteran political consultant David Townsend, of the Sacramento firm Townsend, Raimundo, Besler and Usher, said strategy must be plotted for three distinct phases of an election: First, for voters who make up their minds early. Second, for voters who request absentee ballots in early October and cast them two to three weeks before the election. And finally, for the 40% to 50% of voters who typically don't decide until the end.

"We basically run a mini-campaign for absentee voters," Townsend said, with the hope of swaying and motivating voters in that critical period when most absentee voters apply for ballots in October "before the hit pieces start arriving."


In tight races, the idea is to convince the occasional voter to request an absentee ballot, then to follow with telephone calls and, when possible, personal visits.

It's a strategy that Republicans honed in the Bradley-Deukmejian race, and later in Orange County. In 1990, Republican Dan Lungren retired on election night trailing Democrat Arlo Smith by 30,000 votes for attorney general.

But Lungren slept well that night, and one week later, the massive Republican absentee vote gave him nearly 60,000 votes and a 29,000-vote victory margin. Overall, Lungren pounded Smith by 355,982 to 178,518 in Orange County, which provided more than 10% of Lungren's total statewide vote.

Thompson, a specialist in Orange County elections, said the number of absentee and "provisional" ballots were unusually large in the 46th Congressional district. Provisional ballots are absentee ballots turned in on election day, those ballots cast by voters who claim they were left off election rolls, or any other ballot involving a discrepancy.

"What's very strange about this election in this particular district is the phenomenally higher-than-normal number of absentee and provisional ballots," Thompson said.

Thompson said Republicans have been collecting statements from campaign workers and others who allegedly know instances where the Democrats' camp "paid workers that went door-to-door of people who applied for absentee ballots and voted them"--that is, turned in their ballots at polling places.

If that's true, Thompson said, "that's a felony. Campaign people aren't supposed to be handling other people's ballots."

But, he conceded, "it's really hard to prove."

Sanchez rejected such contentions Wednesday, saying, "I don't believe there was voter fraud."

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