October 7 looms as the big day in the California recall election — the date when most of the state’s voters will troop to the polls and cast their ballots. But largely overlooked is the fact that the recall election, like all statewide elections in California, is a rolling referendum in which actual voting begins a full month before Election Day. The reason: absentee ballots. This increasingly popular mode of voting will likely be more critical than ever in this year’s recall battle. Ironically, a method of voting that is popular among Republicans may turn out to be quite damaging to their fortunes.
Absentee or early balloting is common throughout the West but largely unknown east of the Mississippi. In western states, this method of voting has become widely popular and integral to state politics. Indeed, voting by mail is now an institution as accepted as other western innovations such as the initiative and, for that matter, the recall. Many voters find it more convenient to vote at home and mail in their ballot than to hustle to a polling place on Election Day. To vote by absentee ballot, a voter simply must fill out a form requesting a ballot from county election officials, and then return the ballot by mail or in person any time before the polls close on Election Day.
In states that allow absentee balloting, campaigns that do not specifically target absentee voters risk losing a large percentage of the vote before Election Day even arrives. In this year’s California recall election, absentee voting begins on September 8 (i.e., the first day that absentee-ballot applications will be processed and mailed out to voters). Voters can request absentee ballots until September 30.
The popularity of absentee voting has surged in recent years. The percentage of Californians voting by absentee ballot has grown from 24.5 percent of the total electorate in 2000 to 27 percent last year. The number may reach 30 percent in this year’s recall election, and will certainly be no less than one-quarter of the vote.
Absentee voters are disproportionately Republican and conservative. A Field poll taken right before statewide elections in November 2002 found that 47 percent of absentee voters in California were Republicans, while only 41 percent were Democrats. This was despite the fact that Democrats enjoy a 10-point registration advantage in the state. Curiously, Democrats and liberals are significantly more likely to vote at the polls on Election Day; why they are more traditional in their voting but not much else is open to speculation and perhaps a political-science thesis. Absentee voters also are more likely to be female, above the age of 50, and conservative.
It also stands to reason (and is historically true) that people who are partisan and especially eager to vote will obtain absentee ballots and mail them in very promptly. A substantial percentage of absentee ballots are mailed in within the first week; these too are disproportionately the votes of conservative Republicans. There may never have been voters more highly motivated than California conservatives counting the days to vote for the recall of Gray Davis. Given these factors, it is quite possible that 10 percent of the entire vote in the recall election will be in the mail, on the way to county election officials, by September 15. This rolling process will continue daily through Election Day.
The timing of absentee balloting does not favor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Quite simply, he needs every Republican vote he can get. Polls to date have shown that many of the likely absentee voters are inclined to vote for Tom McClintock, the conservative Republican in the race. According to the August 24 Los Angeles Times poll, even Peter Ueberroth is drawing 10 percent of the total Republican vote. McClintock stands to do particularly well in the early voting and, at this stage, can reasonably hope that his support will continue to grow up to Election Day.
Schwarzenegger cannot afford to lose these votes, especially because he is not doing as well as he should with non-Republican voters. His problem is not simply his high negative ratings, which are almost equal to his positive ratings. Even among likely independent voters, the Times poll found, Schwarzenegger was polling no better than Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante. Schwarzenegger’s candidacy is seemingly tailor-made for independents. These voters were essential to Jesse Ventura’s election in Minnesota. With a sizable Democratic registration advantage and the independent vote splintered among several candidates, Schwarzenegger must garner almost all Republican votes to win. At this point, with McClintock comparing himself to the underestimated race horse Seabiscuit, there is no sign that the field will be cleared for Schwarzenegger in the next week or two, if ever.
It may be that in coming weeks, as the prospect of a Bustamante governorship grows starker, Republicans will tilt sharply toward Schwarzenegger. The danger is that by then, many of these same Republicans will have already voted by mail. At that point, it will be too late for them to take back their votes — and all they will be able to do is ponder why there are so many liberal Democrats lined up at the polls on Election Day.
— Andrew Peyton Thomas, an attorney and author in Phoenix, was the Republican nominee for attorney general of Arizona last year.