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Mail-order democracy

STEVEN HILL is director of the political reform program of the New America Foundation and the author of "10 Steps to Repair American Democracy."

All across California, millions of voters didn’t wait for election day. They didn’t hear any of the last-minute appeals from the candidates. They made up their minds weeks ago and filled out their absentee ballots in the comfort of

their living rooms or at kitchen counters.

Many political scientists and commentators hail the convenience of absentee voting as a milestone in democracy, with the potential to boost voter turnout. The absentee ballot allows voters to vote “at their own pace,” said Mark Baldassare, director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California.

The dramatic upsurge in absentee voting began in 2002, when former Secretary of State Kevin Shelley implemented the state’s “permanent absentee voting” law, which allows any voter to cast a ballot by mail. In the 2003 recall election, nearly 40% of the votes cast (3.2 million) were absentee, while in the June 2006 primary, the percentage reached 47% of the 5.2 million votes tallied.

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For Tuesday’s election in California, absentee voters could outnumber those going to the polls. Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, believes that this trend may climb to 60% or higher in his lifetime. (Nationwide, 30 states allow absentee or mail-in voting, and experts estimate that 20% of the voters in the midterm elections will have made their candidate choices before Tuesday.)

But the rise of absentee voting, while convenient for voters, is a headache for political campaigns. Consultants and strategists plotting campaigns are struggling to understand the emerging political landscape. With nearly half of eligible Californians voting by mail, influencing their votes has made campaigns longer and more expensive and helped undermine campaign finance reform. “Three weeks before election day, you now have 20% to 25% of the vote already cast,” said Dan Schnur, a leading Republican political and media strategist. “The complexion of the entire election has changed.”

According to Schnur and other consultants, a campaign now has to run several separate but interlocking campaigns -- one 30 days out from election day, another about 15 days out, and then in the final two weeks before voting, the traditional “get out the vote” campaign. Election day has become more like election month.

“Campaign spending plans have been transformed by the increase in absentee voting,” said Darry Sragow, a Democratic campaign strategist. “Previously, you made your campaign plan by working backward from election day. You built your momentum as you moved closer to the big day. But now you have to spread out your money over a longer period of time. That changes everything.”

“You can’t save your gunpowder for the end,” Schnur added, “timing your television or radio ads and mailers for the last two weeks of the campaign, because you’ll find that half your voters have already voted.”

This fundamental change in the timing of campaigns is more than a logistical challenge. It also boosts costs significantly. “Especially if you need to reach voters by television advertising,” Sragow said, “you are forced to sustain a respectable level of TV exposure over a much longer period, and that drives already escalating costs through the roof. You can’t take an adequate two-week television buy and spread it out over four weeks. You need to double the two-week buy.”

A prime-time 30-second spot in Sacramento costs as much as $2,500. In Los Angeles during the 2005 special election, TV ads on ESPN were running more than $10,000. The need for more TV commercials thus can significantly boost campaign budgets.

It used to be that grass-roots campaigning -- precinct walking, phone banks -- heading into election day was good enough in races for lesser statewide offices. In addition to this, these campaigns must now mail literature to the rising numbers of absentee voters. While county registrars try to track which voters have returned their mail-in ballots, a campaign may end up contacting voters who already have cast ballots, a waste of time and money.

For a campaign bulging with cash, these challenges do not pose significant problems. But for one with little money to burn, the rise of the absentee voter is especially problematic. A multi-tiered and precisely timed strategy sustained over a month requires a lot more logistics, planning and scheduling, which necessitates more highly paid professional staff. All this increases the amount of money needed to run an effective campaign, which in turn complicates campaign finance reform, said Rob Richie, executive director of FairVote, a nonprofit organization devoted to political reform.

“Campaign costs already have skyrocketed. When longer voting periods increase the need for money, that only increases the clout of wealthy interests.”

The cost effects of absentee voting don’t stop at campaigning. California’s betwixt-and-between system -- half-precinct voting, half-vote by mail -- is expensive for taxpayers. In addition to the costs of setting up roughly the same number of precincts on election day and hiring poll workers to staff them for slightly more than half the voters, counties now have to mail to more absentee voters. And the cost of postage for mailing multiple ballot cards per voter is significant.

To mail ballots to half of California’s roughly 16 million registered voters can cost several million dollars, depending on the number of ballot cards. This money must be spent in addition to the tens of millions of dollars necessary for setting up election day precincts. Not surprisingly, when Oregon went to all-mail balloting in 1995, its administration costs dropped from $4.33 a ballot to $1.23 a ballot.

Tuesday’s California ballot is so big -- seven statewide offices, federal, state and local legislative races, state Supreme Court justices, 13 state ballot measures and numerous local ones -- that election officials feared some ballots would be returned for insufficient postage. Secretary of State Bruce McPherson reports that 24 counties have mail-in ballots exceeding one ounce in weight, which requires 63 cents in postage. Fortunately, his office has worked out a deal with the U.S. Postal Service to ensure that all ballots will be delivered.

Some political scientists worry that spreading voting over four weeks disperses the public’s attention and diminishes the importance of a centuries-old ritual of going to the polls, a communal act that arguably is a cornerstone of American democracy.

“In an increasingly atomized and fragmented America,” said Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, “there are probably two major communal acts left -- sharing fireworks on the Fourth of July and voting with one’s peers on election day. We sacrifice these vestiges of community at our peril.”


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