Arnold Schwarzenegger unleashed Armageddon last week. No, not the sequel to the movie where the giant asteroid threatens Earth, but rather his proposed budget, which seemed to menace California.
There were two budgets, actually. One, which assumed voters would pass state ballot measures on Tuesday, would cut deeply into state services to address a $15.4-billion deficit. The other assumed the measures' defeat. It would lay off thousands of workers, cut billions from schools, strip poor children of healthcare coverage, slice money for child welfare services, swipe billions from cities and send tens of thousands of convicts to county jails or federal custody, all to fill a yawning $21.3-billion hole.
Immediately, critics howled that the governor was stoking the fears of citizens. They implied that the governor was hoping fearful voters would storm polling places on Tuesday and reverse what surveys suggest is the looming defeat of the ballot measures.
Although politics was undeniably on the governor's mind, that scenario ignored a California reality: Many of the state's most reliable voters had already cast ballots by the time the governor released his doomsday options.
As of the close of last week, according to state voting officials, almost 2 million ballots had been collected at registrars' offices across the state, a huge chunk of the vote for an election where turnout is otherwise expected to be paltry. Indeed, many voting officials expect that this will be the first statewide election in which mail-in ballots make up more than half of those cast.
The mail-in ballot has radically reshaped politics in California. The traditional political calendar, in which a campaign seeks to roar like a tsunami onto the beach on election day, flattening the opposition on momentum, is of little use when voters can cast ballots on any of the 29 days before election day.
Even television, the device most used by California campaigns to reach voters, loses some of its utility. Some campaigns -- particularly those that, like the ballot measure advocates, are strapped for cash -- figure their money is better spent appealing by phone and mail to reliable mail-in voters than lofting expensive ads to an audience dominated by people who won't show up.
The demographics of mail-in voters, too, can alter the outcomes in races where turnout otherwise is expected to be low. Although the margins are narrowing, mail-in voters still tend to be older, more conservative, more white, more Republican and more Bay Area by residence than traditional precinct voters.
Part of the reason for each of those characteristics is the exceptionally low proportion of mail-in voters in the state's biggest county, Los Angeles.
According to statistics gathered by the state elections officials, 17% of the county's registered voters will be eligible to vote by mail on Tuesday, compared with the state average of 39%.
Although officials elsewhere have beaten the bushes to attract mail-in voters, Los Angeles has undertaken no special effort. The reason, county Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan said, is the numbers.
Los Angeles County has 4.3 million registered voters. A little more than 750,000 are eligible to vote by mail in Tuesday's election. That is more than the number of registered voters in 51 of the state's 57 other counties. As it is, county elections officials are swimming in a sea of mailed ballots.
"We're getting anywhere from 12,000 to 25,000 ballots back in the mail each day," Logan said. "It literally takes up a floor in our building."
Once retrieved from the post office, mail-in ballots need to be sorted by precinct, verified against voter signatures on file and prepared for counting. And this has to be done as workers are gearing up for the traditional precinct election, which in Los Angeles County on Tuesday will involve more than 3,000 polling places.
"It's really the equivalent of two different elections at the same time," Logan said.
In Los Angeles, as in the state, the numbers of mail-in voters are growing with each election. And they are having an intriguing effect on the task of getting California's blasé voters to vote.
In November's presidential election, turnout beat 80% in each of the 10 counties with the highest percentage of mail-in voters. Sonoma County, one of the success stories in mail-in voting, saw more than 93% of its voters cast ballots in November.
Of the 10 counties with the lowest percentage of mail-in voters, by contrast, only three counties hit 80%.
"Making it easier to vote tends to increase turnout," said Joe Holland, the Santa Barbara County clerk-recorder and assessor. In his county, Holland said, up to 70% of mail-in voters take part, about double the proportion of non-mail voters.
Los Angeles County had its own experiment on the subject earlier this month, when San Marino voted on a parcel tax. In the mail-only election, more than 50% of voters cast ballots, a huge percentage for a special election. By contrast, a traditional April election in Arcadia drew less than 14%. And Los Angeles' mayoral primary drew a bleak 17%.
For those trying to boost voter turnout, there is a central question about mail-in voters: Are they taking part because of the ease of voting from home, or are they signing up to vote by mail because they already are civic-minded? If the former is true, the numbers will grow exponentially; if it's the latter, growth may at some point slow.
"I think both those dynamics are true," said Logan, the Los Angeles voting czar. "There certainly are voters who are just very highly civically engaged, who signed up because they want to be sure they are voting in every election. . . . And there are others who are driven by the intuitive: Because it arrives in the mail, they are more likely to cast that ballot."
Each Sunday, The Week examines one or more major stories and their implications. Previous editions of The Week are archived at latimes.com/theweek.