Early, mail voting up sharply in California’s election

Long before Election Day, millions of Californians have cast their ballots, most of them by mailing them in but some of them by dropping off ballots at clerks’ offices across the state. Seven days before the election, about  two million ballots had been cast in advance in California’s 58 counties, and more were expected.   In tiny, mountainous  Alpine County, the entire electorate – all 814 of them – are voting by mail and a third of them have already cast ballots.

What was once an Election Day jaunt to a neighborhood precinct to cast a paper ballot has changed into an exercise in electronics – 19 counties have electronic voting equipment – a trip to the mail box or a visit to an elections office to drop off an early ballot.

California’s county election officials are scheduled to submit their final registration figures, including absentee and vote-by-mail numbers, to the secretary of state’s office this week. Although the final numbers aren’t in, the trend is clear: People may not be voting often, but they are voting  early. And while election officials from the secretary of state on down are loathe to describe the voting in partisan terms, the pollsters aren’t so shy: Virtually every poll has Barack Obama winning in California.

Statewide, of California’s 17.2 million registered voters, about 40 percent – seven million voters – decided to vote by mail. Of those, about 2.1 million already   have cast ballots and more are pouring in. Perhaps a third of California’s absentee voters will have returned their ballots before Election Day, and when drop-by ballots and mailed ballots received on Election Day are counted, the final percentage is likely to approach 45 percent, or more. In June, some 41.65 percent of ballots were absentee.

“One thing all this means is that the last-minute campaign will not have the same impact that it would have had even a couple of years ago, because a large part of the vote already is in the box,” said Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College. “So if it turns out that one of the candidates is a jewel thief, it’s not going to have an effect.”

Total turnout predictions are a work in progress, and many election officers from Secretary of State Debra Bowen on down don’t publicly hazard guesses. But several election officials estimated a local turnout of between 70 and 75 percent. Contra Costa County elections chief Steve Weir estimated his county’s turnout at 76 percent of registered voters.

Traditionally, absentee balloting has played a pivotal role in California politics. In 1960, Democrat John Kennedy won California at the polls, but Republican rival Richard Nixon, a California native son, won the state after the absentee vote was counted. In 1982, Democratic gubernatorial contender Tom Bradley, an African American, was ahead on Election Day, but the absentee count tipped the race to Republican George Deukmejian. That result has been attributed, at least in part, to Bradley’s race, but a number of political observers in California believe it was driven not by race but by the Republicans’ ferocious absentee effort. In 1990,  Republican Dan Lungren – now a congressman facing a tough reelection in the 3rd District – defeated San Francisco Democrat Arlo Smith for state attorney general. Smith won a nail-biter on Election Day, but Lungren was victorious two weeks later after all the absentees were counted.

A number of California’s rural counties have the highest proportion of mail voters: Plumas, Lassen, Tuolumne and Sierra counties report that a fourth of their registered voters or more have returned absentee ballots. Plumas County has an added distinction: It is the only one of California’s 58 counties in which more than half – 53.4 percent – of vote-by-mail voters already have sent in their ballots.

Bowen noted that an aggressive vote-by-mail campaign in San Diego County is yielding results. There, more than a third of the county’s 644,493 mail-registered voters have sent in their ballots. The return rate in San Diego, about 14.7 percent of the total registered voters in the county, is double that of Los Angeles, which has about 7.5 percent. Los Angeles’ raw numbers, however, are higher – of that county’s 4.3 million registered voters, about 322,000 mail-voters already have sent in their ballots. San Francisco’s return rate is 10.53 percent of the total registrants, or 49,567 voters, or about 25.55 percent of the 194,000 vote-by-mail registration.

According to the counties’ election officers, preliminary numbers show that California had 17,174,246 registered voters through Tuesday morning, or 1,002,474 more than the state reported on Sept. 5. That means in the seven weeks since Sept. 5, about 19,000 new voters a day. That number is all but certain to increase in the next few days as the final figures become available, including the numbers from a half-dozen counties that have not yet update their reports.

In Alpine County, which straddles the Sierra, the election is handled entirely by mail, and has been since the 1990s. The county has 1,208 residents, and 814 registered voters, said County Clerk Barbara Howard. Thus far, about four in every 10 ballots have been turned in, and more are expected by Election Day.

“We mailed them out on Oct. 6, and we got the first one back on Oct. 6 – it was dropped off,” Howard said. “Right now, we’re running above 40 percent returns. The last week is always heavy, and there are always people who will bring them in right up until Election Night.”

Howard believes the turnout will be heavy. The county routinely gets 70 percent-plus turnouts; this election may be higher, she said.

“I’m always hoping.”

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