Absentee vote is Feb. 5 wild card

California’s voters are in for a double-whammy next year. Not only will they vote for presidential candidates in February, a first, but the state’s absentee voters also actually will cast ballots days, or even weeks, before many voters in other states with a February 5 presidential primary.

That’s because California election law allows absentee voters to begin casting ballots nearly a month before Election Day, or two months earlier if they live outside the country. In November, some 8 million Californians voted, 3.6 million of them–about 45 percent–by absentee. Next February, the absentee vote is expected to reach 50 percent, more than the entire populations of New Hampshire and Nevada combined.

“It’s all up in the air, of course, but Californians actually could be casting their ballots before anyone else in the country. The primary isn’t really February 5. It starts the minute the ‘permanent absentee’ ballots are sent back, and ‘permanent absentee’ is a group that is growing by leaps and bounds,” said Tony Quinn, a political historian and coauthor of the Target Book, which tracks legislative elections.

About half of California’s absentee ballots cast well in advance of the election tend to be Republican and are tallied first after the polls close. The remainder are cast just before the election, which tend to break similar to the ballots cast at precincts, and are counted last.

There is an element of uncertainty, too, because early absentee voters won’t know how their favorites fared in other states. Will that make a difference in how they vote?

“California’s early absentee voters may just wait until they see who wins in Iowa. There’s no rush, and you may not want to vote for a horse that’s been defeated in another state,” said Bob Mulholland, political director of the California Democratic Party.

But the flip side may also prove true, said Dan Schnur, a veteran political strategist and instructor at the University of Southern California and UC Berkeley.

“A California voter who casts an absentee ballot three or four weeks out is going to do so without knowing what happened in the primary states,” Schnur said. “California’s absentee rule makes it even more difficult for a candidate to break through. If you’re a second-tier candidate who shocks the world with a win in Iowa and New Hampshire, you’ll find that there are hundreds of thousands of California voters who have already cast their ballots,” he added.

States that select candidates with primaries or caucuses in January, such as Iowa, South Carolina and, presumably, Nevada, will trail California’s absentee voters, who can vote beginning Jan. 7.

New Hampshire, for example, may wind up with a January 22 or January 29 primary date, but that state has tighter restrictions on absentee voting than California. Since about 40 percent of California’s absentee voters typically cast ballots prior to a week before Election Day, that means some 1.2 million Californians are likely to vote before New Hampshire goes to the polls.

Or take Arizona, which has its “presidential preference election” currently set for Feb. 22. That state, which has a 15-day window prior to Election Day to allow absentee voting, is considering moving its primary into January, a move that can be done by an executive order of Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. The order likely would expand the window to 26 or 33 days. “It hasn’t been done yet, but we are kind of expecting it,” said Arizona elections officer Kris Waite.

The presidential primary calendar is a work in progress and could change quickly. One potential change is Florida, a critical state in the presidential battleground, where lawmakers are considering moving its presidential primary to Jan. 29. Like California, Florida law has few restrictions on absentee voting.

According to the National Association of Secretaries of States, which is compiling a national presidential election calendar, eight other states have or likely will move their presidential primaries to Feb. 5 and intend to stay there–Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Missouri, Nevada (GOP primary only), Oklahoma and Utah.

But twelve other states are actively considering moving to Feb. 5–Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas.

South Carolina and New Hampshire, which plan primaries in February, are could move their dates–New Hampshire to January 22, and South Carolina to January 29. Colorado, meanwhile, is expected to hold its caucuses on Feb. 5.

The presidential primary calendar is a work in progress and could change quickly. The most dramatic potential change is Florida, where lawmakers are considering moving its presidential primary to Jan. 29. Like California, Florida law has few restrictions on absentee voting.

But absentee or not, the earlier California presidential primary is being felt.
“It’s already had an effect,” said Jim Brulte, former Senate GOP leader and now a consultant with California Strategies. “I don’t want to be a shill for the Democrats, but Hillary, Obama, Edwards, Kucinich–they’re all going to be at the state Democratic convention next month. We just had McCain do a sweep. Giuliani was here over the weekend. Romney was here.”

Political experts from both major parties say California’s early voting will not have a direct impact on the outcome of the election.

But the indirect impact of California’s expanding absentee vote could be significant. Campaign researchers and pollsters, anxious to spot early trends, are all but certain to survey the absentee vote prior to February 5.

One trend is that slate mailers, usually timed to arrive on the weekend before the election, may be sent out earlier to reach the permanent absentees. Another is that well-funded campaign pollsters will survey the state’s early absentee vote, then push the results out before the other primaries. A third is that the absentee voters will be casting ballots in the middle of a compressed, intense campaign season, the 23-day period between January 14 and February 5, during which presidential candidates will crisscross the nation in a frenzy. “In effect, it’s a de facto nationwide primary,” said Patrick Dorinson, a former state GOP spokesman and now a private communications consultant.

“It’s going to make Around the World in 80 Days look like a stroll in the park. Candidates are going to be flying in and flying out of so many states that it will be amazing if they can keep their time zones straight, not to mention the cities they are in,” Schnur said.

Contact John Howard at

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