The California presidential primary is set for Feb. 5. But the voting begins Monday.
California voters are likely to cast absentee ballots in the Feb. 5 presidential primary at an unprecedented level, with as many as 1 in every 2 voters mailing in their ballots. Election officials will start mailing the ballots on Monday — nearly a month before Election Day — and the first votes will be tallied soon afterward. That means millions of Californians will have voted long before Feb. 5, and if the presidential candidates want to reach them, experts say, they need to get cracking long before the last week before the election. It also means that this year California will have the longest general election campaign in its history.
The end game begins in five days.
“It causes real strategic and mechanical problems in the campaigns. The idea that you can come to California and do something in the last week and make all roads lead to Rome is out the door,” said Democratic political strategist Garry South. “You have to be cognizant of the fact that voters are voting close to 30 days before the election. This changes the whole dynamic of the campaigns. The ballot for Feb. 5 goes out on Jan. 7, and that means before any of these candidates get to California with their end game, people are already voting.”
That Californians vote by mail is not new. What is new is the magnitude of California’s mail-in electorate.
Statistics kept by the secretary of state for 26 election cycles since 1962 — including primary, general and special elections — show a gradual increase in absentee voting fueled by changes in state law that have made it easier to vote by mail. The increases were not consistent year to year: In eight general elections, the level of absentee voting was slightly lower than in the election before, while in the remaining 18 elections, it increased. Data is scant in some primaries. But the overall result over 40 years is a rising tide of absentee balloting. The sharpest increase occurred in the 2006 primary election, when 46.9 percent voted absentee — nearly 13 percent more than the absentee vote in the 2004 presidential primary. Other states reflect similar changes.
In the general election of 1962, just 2.6 percent of the 5.9 million voters cast absentee ballots. In the last general election, November 2006, 41.5 percent voted absentee. The level of mail-in voting appears to be independent of the level of interest of the general electorate, and the general increase in mail-in ballots occurs despite the rise or fall of the overall voter participation. It has also risen regardless of the shifting demographics of the electorate. For example, nearly two-thirds of young voters in California, those between 18 and 25, cast ballots in the 1972 presidential election; in 2004, that figure was cut almost in half, to nearly 37 percent. During the same period, according to exit polls, California’s electorate overall became older, more affluent and white — at the same time that absentee voting increased exponentially.
“We’re going to end up with 2 million voters who will receive their ballots that first week,” said political historian Tony Quinn, co-author of the California Target Book. “And I think a lot of those voters will decide early, and they will be influenced by what happens in those early primary states. They (the county registrars) will get those ballots mailed as early as they can, because the counties like this vote by mail — they don’t have to put people out at the ballot boxes all day long, they can do it all at a more leisurely pace.”
California’s much-ballyhooed decision to move its primary up from June to February may have only a limited impact on the ultimate outcome of the presidential election, Quinn noted, because many other states have moved theirs up, too. Twenty-one other states, including Illinois and New York, will have primaries or caucuses on the same day as the California primary. Iowa moved its caucuses up to today (Jan. 3); New Hampshire moved its primary up to Jan. 8; and the Florida primary — a critical contest in the Republican presidential calculus — is scheduled for Jan. 29. (Because Florida moved up its primary date over the objections of the Democratic National Committee, the DNC has urged candidates to boycott the Florida primary, and the Florida delegation will not be seated at the Democratic National Convention.) The bottom line: The gravitas of the entire presidential contest has tilted to the beginning of the year, which leaves California in relatively the same position it was in before the change.
There are two general categories of absentee voters: those who regularly take advantage of mail-in voting and those who have been signed up by the parties’ get-out-the-vote drives.
“The early absentees are used to dealing with it. The conservative, older, homeowners and Republican returns are higher in that first group,” Quinn said. “The second groups is generated by the campaigns.”
For consultants like South, the early primaries help neither the voter nor the electorate.
“Candidates need a primary process to be vetted, to learn the ropes, to get their sea legs and fend off attacks. The faster you make this process, the less space there is for a candidate. There is some value for having a primary process that goes on for three or four months. In the ebbs and flows and ups and downs, they learn how their opponents are going to attack, and there is value in that.”
“Moving the primary to Feb. 5 in the largest state in America with 13 media markets, including the second-most expensive, is not fair to most of the candidates, and therefore it’s not fair to the process,” South said.
Even though California’s absentee ballots go out nearly a month before the election, millions of voters will not get them until after the Iowa caucuses and, in most cases, until after the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary. That means that, contrary to the original thinking in moving the primary to Feb. 5, the presidential campaigns can focus their efforts on the two smaller states — and not on California. Earlier attempts to move the primary had similar results.
“California’s been a month late, and it’s a month late again,” Quinn said.