Voters’ love affair with absentee ballots is rising, in part because of the widespread attention paid to the presidential campaign and in part because the electorate is increasingly comfortable with voting by mail.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Brad Buyse, of the Sacramento County registrar of voters, who said the current county registration surpasses the 2004 presidential election numbers. He noted that the latest numbers, about 661,000 registered voters in the county, are not complete – they will not be available until Monday at the earliest. But a new record already has been set. “And we are projecting a 14 to 20 percent increase above that.” More than four in 10 voters cast ballots by mail, and that percentage is likely to increase, too.
Some 160 miles to the north, the Shasta County registrar has a similar view, with registration climbing overall and more use of vote-by-mail.
For the past three years, more voters in Shasta County have voted by mail than went to the precincts to vote. In June, a state primary, more than twice as many people cast ballots through the mail than went to the polls – local record and similar to the balloting in a 2007 special election. In February’s presidential primary this year, of 55,000 local ballots cast, some 30,000 were absentee. Similar proportions were reported in the 2006 general and primary elections.
“We’re hearing the same thing across the state,” said Cathy Darling, Shasta County’s clerk and voter registrar. As in Sacramento, the registration numbers already have surpassed the 2004, and the level is expected to climb further.
“Of course, in a presidential year there is always an increase in registration. If you did a graph, you would see a spike every four years, and this probably happens nationwide,” Darling said. The intense interest generated by non-stop news coverage feeds the interest, she added.
In California, some 41.65 percent of those who cast ballots voted absentee in the last statewide election, according to the state’s election officer. That figure is likely to climb in November, although there are no official projects.
Historically, the proportion of absentee California voters has grown steadily, from about 6.3 percent in 1980 to 32.6 percent in the 2004 presidential election. In November 2004, some 12.6 million Californians voted, and about 4.1 million cast absentee ballots.
Traditionally, the absentee vote leaned Republican. That has changed over the years, although the early absentee vote typically has a Republican edge, and the late absentee vote – the ballots that are dropped off at precincts on Election Day – tip Democratic, said political historian Tony Quinn, the co-author of the Target Book. Overall, the absentee vote, in part because it is so pervasive, now reflects the precinct vote.
“Now, because the absentee vote is so high, you are getting a vote that is more reflective of the whole,” Quinn said.
But he noted that early reports from across the country indicate that the increases in registration appear to be driven by Democrats, which could mean that early absentee results could reflect a higher proportion of Democrats than before.
“What I’m hearing is that Democratic turnout in early voting is much higher, and this comports to the general pattern that seen this entire year, of much higher Democratic turnout in the primaries,” he said.
Indications of the higher Democratic absentee figures are coming in from around the state.
In the 80th Assembly District, Democrats outnumber Republicans in permanent absentee registration, according to Josh Pulliam, a campaign manager for Democratic candidate Manuel Perez.
“Historically, the more conservative ballots come in early, but during the first week, we’ve seen more Democrats than Republican,” Pulliam said. The campaigns get reports from the counties about which voters have returned ballots. They compare those lists to the lists of voters they’ve contacted to gage support.
“Based on that, we’re very encouraged,” Pulliam said.
Joe Justin, campaign manager for Republican contender Tony Strickland in the 19th Senate District, said assessing the early absentee vote is valuable.
“Absolutely. It gives you a chance to bank votes before it gets too ugly with all the hits from the unions.”
In the 19th Senate District, there are about 160,000 permanent absentees, including 70,000 Republicans, 60,000 Democrats and 30,000 who decline to state.
Democrats claim a dramatic edge in new voter registrations, with 43.9 percent, up from 2004, or 7.1 million in total. Republicans, meanwhile, have 32.43 percent, or 5.2 million, and the declined to state are 3.15 million, or 19.5 percent. State Party Chairman Art Torres says the increase is driven by Obama supporters.
The latest figures show a GOP drop and increase in declined to state. In 2004, the GOP reported 35 percent registration, and the declined to state were at 17.1 percent. In 2004, 37 counties had Republican majorities; now, 33 counties do.