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Call the absentees: Micro-targeting in the low-turn out campaign

For the first time in California history, the majority of the ballots cast in this June's elections are expected to be absentee ballots.

The growing popularity of vote-by-mail ballots, coupled with an expected low turnout election mean that most voters will have their ballots in hand before Election Day for the first time.

While the Secretary of State's office does not offer official projections, either on turn-out or what percentage of the voters will be absentee, political consultants across the state say they expect early voting to be more important this year than ever. In the 2006 primary election, 46.9 percent of voters were absentee, up nearly 13 percent from the 2004 primary.

In the recent special election that sent Jackie Speier to Congress, overall turnout was in the mid-20s, with almost three-fourths of all voters casting absentee ballots.

"Every campaign now has to take into account the fact that a large portion of the votes that will be cast are in voters hands a month before election day," said Paul Hefner, a spokesman for the campaign to recall Jeff Denham. "A lot of those ballots are going to be cast well before the election day occurs. You've got to try to talk to those folks when they're thinking about your race."

This June, with no statewide candidates on the ballot, and only two ballot initiatives, only the most tried and true voters are expected to come to the polls. Turn-out models vary from campaign to campaign, but most expect turn out to be as low as 20 percent in some districts.

So most campaigns are concentrating their outreach efforts on the so-called "five-of fives," voters who have voted in all of the last five elections.

And the messaging has started earlier than ever. Many campaigns have already started their mail campaigns, and some are beginning to reach out to high-propensity voters through phone banks. Foot soldiers are already knocking on door, and lawn signs are out earlier than ever.

"We recognize that there will be a higher percentage of babsentee voters this time, and that  we need to reach them early in May, when they get their ballots," said Kathy Fairbanks, a spokeswoman for the No on 98/Yes on 99 campaign.

The early messaging is due in part to the brevity of this spring's ballot. Because there are only two initiatives on the ballot, and no statewide candidates, many campaigns are assuming voters may fill out their ballots earlier, simply because it will take less time than normal.

Some groups are focusing their efforts on absentee voters to put their candidate over the top this year. EdVoice has launched a "carbon-free voting" campaign in Santa Monica to help boost votes for Senate candidate Fran Pavley.

EdVoice spokesman Paul Mitchell says the campaign has been focused in the parts of the district that PAvely represented in the Assembly. "Voters in the 41st Assembly District are favoring Pavley 54-16," Mitchell said. "So the challenge them becomes not just persuading those voters who to vote for, but getting them to vote."

Mitchell said Los Angeles County has lower permanent absentee rates than most other parts of the state. "Parts of her district are 11-13 percent absentee," he said. "If we can boost absentee voting in those places, we know we're boosting support for Pavley."

But even though a majority of the ballots may be mail-in ballots, a number of them will be handed in to poll workers on Election Day. Even so-called permanent absentee voters some wait to cast their vote, opting to hand in their absentee ballots at the polls.

Hefner says that while early voters can often times differ with Election Day results, the absentee votes that are handed in late tend to closely mirror the ballots cast at the polling place. " The people who walk into a polling place with an absentee ballot tend to look like those cast on Election Day. In close races, you see that tide turn as they count the vote." 

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