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THE STATE | THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Candidates Targeting State's Absentee Voters

Known for their loyalty -- and with their numbers growing -- citizens who cast ballots by mail are getting special attention.

September 08, 2003|Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writer

With a larger portion of California's electorate voting absentee in each passing election, election day for the Oct. 7 recall effectively begins today with the mailing of the first wave of absentee ballots to voters.

More than 1.2 million voters, considered among the most loyal and partisan in the state, have permanent absentee status. Hundreds of thousands of additional voters are expected to vote by mail -- votes that no one hoping for success in the special election can afford to overlook.

"The absentee vote is going to be very important, critical," said state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres, who said his party plans to contact 2.1 million likely absentee voters.

In addition, Torres said Democrats will send three separate mailings to about 300,000 voters who regularly vote by mail, laying out the reasons the party opposes the recall.

"No credible candidate these days ignores the absentees," Torres said. "They always have as their first mail piece something that encourages people to ask for the absentee ballot and vote early."

Republican Party officials did not comment on their absentee ballot plans, but the pro-recall group Rescue California is launching an absentee voting campaign this week that targets Republicans and independents in conservative-leaning counties, said Dave Gilliard, the group's spokesman.

"The only insurance policy you have to make sure someone votes is to make sure they got a ballot and sent it out," Gilliard said. "That's a vote in the bank."

The usual focus across the political spectrum on turning out reliable voters is particularly strong in this election cycle. Californians are being asked to decide whether Gov. Gray Davis should keep his job. Voters also will determine who among 135 replacement candidates should finish out Davis' term if he fails to gain the support of a majority.

Once, absentee votes were an electoral afterthought, cast mainly by the elderly or frequent travelers and tabulated by election officials in the days after polls closed.

In 1978, California became the first state to liberalize absentee ballots, eliminating the requirement that voters have a valid reason for not visiting the polls on election day and making absentee ballots available to anyone who wanted one.

Since then, the absentee vote has grown steadily, changing the dynamic of how California races are conducted. In November, with turnout low, absentee ballots made up about 27% of the nearly 8 million votes cast in races for statewide office, up from about 17% a decade ago and less than 5% two decades ago.

Republicans once had a large edge over Democrats in absentee ballots. Democrats have worked to close that gap, but in last year's election for governor, polling by The Times showed that 47% of absentee voters said that they had voted for Republican Bill Simon and 42% had backed Davis -- the reverse of the split among voters as a whole.

The importance of absentee voting requires candidates to spend money earlier in the election cycle. Last year, for example, state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) lost a race for state controller by less than half a percentage point. Political analysts said McClintock was hurt by the fact that he did not have the money to advertise statewide until the final days, well after many absentee ballots were cast.

His campaign is not allowing that to happen this time.

"We have recognized from the beginning that some of the most energized voters vote absentee," said John Roos, McClintock's deputy campaign manager. "We geared up early to reach those voters: we've been running statewide radio [advertising] for two and a half weeks, have signs statewide. We focused the campaign early because we knew those people would be voting early."

The unusual circumstances of this election make people nervous who earn a living by projecting likely turnouts and likely outcomes.

The number of polling places will be far fewer than usual -- anywhere from 40% to 60% less than the average general election. The campaign is lasting weeks instead of months, and the election is being held in a nontraditional month.

Political veterans say they are looking for certainty anywhere they can find it. Absentee voters can provide such certainty.

"We have a concerted recruitment program to turn our supporters into permanent absentee voters," said Dave Sickler, Southern California Director for the State Building & Construction Trades Council, whose union members are often away from home for work.

"My personal goal is to win these elections three weeks ahead of time by absentee ballot," he added. "If we find a voter who is pro-worker, we want to make sure that person is going to vote in each election."

Individual campaigns are pushing absentee voting as well.

Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign is one of many asking supporters to vote absentee. All major candidates' Web sites include links to the California secretary of state's office where printable absentee request forms can be downloaded.

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