Grinning broadly and clutching a clipboard, Walter Jackson bounded down the porch steps of a tidy bungalow on a timeworn stretch of West 45th Street. "I got it," he called to the two other men who were walking this Vermont Square precinct in South Los Angeles on a recent Saturday. "That's the third one today!"
Jackson is a foot soldier in the California Democratic Party's ambitious campaign to persuade its voters to cast all their ballots by mail. He had just snagged another "permanent vote by mail" application, something the party especially wants from those who don't go to the polls regularly.
Party officials say the Operation Game Changer drive in L.A. County, where nearly a third of the state's Democrats live, could dramatically improve turnout. Democratic turnout in last November's state election was lower in the county than in California as a whole, said Shawnda Westly, executive director of the state party.
"If people had a [mail] ballot, they were much more likely to vote," Westly said.
L.A. County is home to more than one-fourth of the 17.1 million people on California's voter rolls. About half the 4.5 million registered voters in the state's most populous county are Democrats, but only 19% of those were signed up permanently to cast ballots by mail, compared with 39% of party members statewide.
Although Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state and county, the GOP generally does a better job of turning out its voters, and a larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats are permanent mail voters.
Democratic leaders, who promised to help raise the $1 million the party committed for the effort, say their goal is to add at least 50,000 voters to the permanent mail-in ranks by the middle of next month, when the drive ends. Gov. Jerry Brown hosted an August fundraiser in Sacramento that brought in $250,000, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has another scheduled later this month in San Francisco.
The party hired Tracy Zeluff of GroundWorks Campaigns to run the program. The former union organizer set up a phone bank and opened four storefront offices in the county, recruited paid staff and volunteers to contact voters, and designed a flier touting the convenience of automatically receiving a mail ballot for every election.
The flier features a photo of men and women in work clothes and a sign that says, "We always vote-by-mail and never miss an election." It extols the benefits of proving that "we will stand up to Republican" efforts to cut school budgets and healthcare.
For those who prefer to cast ballots in person, it offers assurance: "You will still be able to vote at the polls."
Until relatively recently, those who wanted to vote by mail had to request a ballot each time. State law changed in 2002, allowing people to enroll to automatically receive a ballot about a month before each election.
L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk Dean C. Logan acknowledged that mail ballots pose challenges. Signatures must be checked against voter registration forms, although that can mostly be done by computer now. An increase in mail ballots can slow election results if voters wait until the last minute to deposit their ballots because verifying and counting them can take several days.
"In close contests, that can be frustrating," Logan said. But he believes the delay is minor when weighed against better participation.
Logan said the number of permanent mail voters in the county is approaching 1 million, and he expects it to keep growing as Democrats and other groups improve turnout.
"We see this as a positive impact … regardless of who is doing it," Logan said.
He cited a county experiment in which officials randomly chose 250,000 voters who had cast ballots for president in 2008. In the month before last November's election, officials sent those voters applications for the permanent mail program. Of those who ultimately signed up, 89% cast ballots, compared with just 54% of voters countywide.
As Jackson worked his way through the addresses on his clipboard, he answered questions and did his best to allay concerns. One woman had lost hope. She felt politicians did little to help illegal immigrants who were honest and hard-working.
"It doesn't do any good" to vote, she said in Spanish to Will Arevalo, one of Jackson's colleagues.
Arevalo listened intently then told her that he understood her frustration but that "voting is the way to change things." He and Jackson spent about 15 minutes with her. She agreed to sign up for the mail program — and promised to give applications to the four other voters in her household. The two organizers could come back later to speak with them.
On his way to the next house, Jackson savored the moment.
"That's five voters," he marveled, "and all because we were able to engage her."