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California's absentee voters may complicate campaigns

With the primary slated for Feb. 5, millions could cast ballots by early January. And those votes could be crucial.

June 10, 2007|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

As states jockey for early power in next year's presidential caucuses and primaries, California could have an unexpected edge. Under the present -- and evolving -- calendar, absentee voters here may be able to cast ballots before the traditionally first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries.

The votes wouldn't be counted until California's scheduled primary on Feb. 5, but the prospect of millions of Californians being able to vote beginning Jan. 7 complicates strategy for the major candidates.

And playing California right could be crucial: The state will send at least 440 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, more than the current five early voting states combined. The Republican delegate allotment won't be set until later this year, but California's population means it will be among the largest delegations to that convention as well.

None of the campaigns would discuss their plans, but one issue is sure to be how much money to spend seeking early voters in California -- usually reached with television ads and direct mail -- while campaigning in more than 20 other states.

"Absentees will be a big piece of it," said Steve Westly, a former Democratic gubernatorial contender and chairman of Sen. Barack Obama's California campaign. "There will be a huge advantage for candidates who can go up on TV early and who can do direct mail."

In the 2006 California gubernatorial race, absentee voters accounted for more than 40% of turnout -- the largest statewide percentage of absentee voting in the nation after Oregon, which does all voting by mail.

But half of the California absentees didn't return their ballots until the week before election day, said Steve Weir, president of the California Assn. of Clerks and Election Officials.

If the 2006 pattern holds, up to one in five California primary voters could be casting ballots before or along with voters and caucus-goers in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Florida and South Carolina.

Tightly contested presidential nomination battles could ramp up enthusiasm among voters and lead to a rush of early ballots. On the other hand, savvy voters might hold on to their absentee ballots for fear of wasting a vote, should their candidate drop out after the first few nominating contests.

"I'm going to bet the permanent absentee voters are going to hold back," Weir said. "If Richardson doesn't make it past the first two weeks, and you voted for Richardson, you may feel you weren't strategic."

In a sign of how seriously some of the campaigns are viewing absentee voting, Republican Sen. John McCain has hired as a deputy strategist Sarah Simmons, who ran Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's absentee-voter efforts in his last campaign.

"She's very familiar with it, and it's definitely part of the strategy," said McCain spokesman Matt David.

Many campaigns are still assembling their California staffs, and detailed plans probably won't evolve until later -- in part because the calendar itself is still shifting.

The current lineup begins with caucuses in Iowa on Jan. 14 and Nevada on Jan. 19, followed by New Hampshire's primary, possibly on Jan. 22, and South Carolina and Florida on Jan. 29. But New Hampshire has yet to formally set its date -- state law requires it be the first primary in the nation -- and South Carolina may move its primary ahead of Florida's under a pledge to be the first in the South.

Wyoming Republicans have also pledged to hold their caucuses on whatever day New Hampshire sets its primary.

Those contests will be followed by a massive vote Feb. 5 in California, New York and about 15 other states, probably including Illinois (a bill to set the date is awaiting the governor's signature). Texas, which had considered moving its contest to Feb. 5, failed to pass the necessary law in its recently ended legislative session, so it remains March 4.

Arizona also is considering holding its primary Feb. 5, and if it does, absentee voters would probably start getting ballots Jan. 10, three days after California. A proposal for North Carolina to move its primary from May 5 to Feb. 5 -- making absentee ballots available Dec. 17 -- has stalled in the state legislature.

Florida and Illinois absentee ballots go out the same day as the Iowa caucus.

But California, with its hundreds of delegates, is the big prize -- and challenge. California is one of five states where more than 25% of voters routinely cast absentee ballots, said Paul Gronke, director of the Early Voting Information Center at Reed College in Oregon. The others are Washington, Texas, Tennessee and Iowa, though absentee voting doesn't apply to the in-person caucuses.

A week's worth of television campaign ads costs several million dollars in California's dispersed markets, and competing for early votes will strain lesser-funded campaigns. But reaching those voters could be crucial to streamlining get-out-the-vote efforts, meaning fewer supporters to spur to the polls in the closing days of the election.

And with delegates for both major parties allotted by congressional district rather than a "winner take all" format, every vote will count.

"An unlimited-resource campaign is going to be on the ground early in California, at least trying to get some of those early ballots cast so they can check those people off the list," Gronke said. But most campaigns will be trying to spend their limited funds in places where they can reach voters more inexpensively, Gronke said.

"Realistically," he said, "they are going to be covering New Hampshire and Iowa, and not covering that 5% to 10%" of California early voters.

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