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California and the West

Rise in Use of Absentee Ballot Alters Tactics as Election Day Nears

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."

Marian Tillman of Fresno, a registered Democrat, has voted by mail in the last four statewide elections, considering it a convenient way of casting her ballot. She said she has increasingly been getting unsolicited phone calls and direct mail around the time she receives her ballot. But by then, she has already made up her mind on the candidates, she said.

"I got some calls a few weeks ago and I have gotten a lot of mail," Tillman said. "I think they would be better off saving their money because those last-minute ads have no effect on me."

Nonetheless, even skeptics such as Skelton concede that the growing absentee numbers have changed campaigning. Skelton shuns absentee registration drives in his political races in presidential election years because voter turnout is already likely to be high. Jones, California's top elections official, is predicting that 76% of the state's 15.7 million registered voters will cast ballots this election, the highest turnout since Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980.

But Skelton does make significant efforts to target absentee voters early with phone calls and direct mail advertising to convey his candidate's messages. And he tracks those who have requested and turned in ballots as part of his drive to make sure likely Democratic supporters do not fail to vote.

A few years ago, campaigns had to sift through paperwork or clunky computer tapes to mine absentee data. Now some counties offer it on the Internet.

"Absentee voters tend to be very serious. They do not tend to be the type of apolitical, undecided people that you target with late mail anyway," Skelton said. "But you certainly track the field data to make sure your voters come out."

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