Voters already going to the polls

Less than four weeks before the Nov. 2 election, millions of voters have begun casting their ballots – by mail.

Nearly nine million voters cast ballots in the last non-presidential general election, and more than four in every 10 voted by mail. A similar proportion is expected this election.

Overall, during the past 56 years, absentee voting – now officially known as vote-by-mail – has risen roughly 10-fold, from 4.2 percent in the 1964 general election to nearly 41.6 percent in the general election of 2006. In 25 general elections in which absentee data was recorded, the absentee vote usually – but not always – rose in each succeeding election.

In raw numbers, the biggest single jump in vote-by-mail balloting occurred in 2005, a year of special elections, when more than 39.9 percent of the ballots were cast absentee, nearly a million more votes, or more than 7 percentage points, more than the 32.61 percent in 2004.

In years past, the absentee vote skewed Republican, in part because affluent Republican voters were more likely to be traveling than Democrats on election day – or at least that was the conventional political wisdom.

The classic case of the impact of absentee voting was in 1982, when Democrat Tom Bradley won at the polls, but Republican George Deukmejian won the vote after the absentee ballots were tallied.

In recent years, the absentee vote has broken more evenly.

But the impact on campaigns has been profound: With better than four in 10 voters expected to cast their votes by mail, the campaigns’ ability to reach out and get their message to voters is compressed.

On Monday, Oct. 4, election officials across the state began sending out vote-by-mail ballots. Those that are returned to voter registrars before Election Day will be counted first, and the results typically are reported prior to the precinct vote. Those that arrive on Election Day get counted at the end, and since many vote-by-mail ballots come in at the last minute, the wait for definitive results in close elections can be a real sweat.

“It makes campaigns go from a four-day, get-out-the-vote effort, to a 34-day, get-out-the-vote effort,” said political strategist Andrew Acosta of the Acosta-Salazar consulting firm which, among other things,  handles legislative and congressional campaigns. This year, the company also represents the opponents of Proposition 19, the marijuana legalization initiative.

“There was a time when only Republicans did absentee voting, but now it is a much accepted way of voting. Younger voters have gravitated to it, it has become part of the normal process,” he added.

The 60-day voter registration report from the secretary of state, the latest figures available, puts California’s registered voters at 16,993,075, or about 72.2 percent of the 23,521,995 Californians who are eligible to vote. The number of eligible voters is the highest ever in the state.

But the percentage of those eligible who have actually registered is not at an all-time high. Just looking at the previous four general elections, the number of registered voters this year is higher than any time back to 1998, but in the 1994 election, the proportion of registered voters was higher – 75.76 percent. On that ballot, Pete Wilson defeated Kathleen Brown for governor, voters approved Proposition 187, the illegal immigration initiative, and Dianne Feinstein defeated Michael Huffington in the race for the U.S. Senate.

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