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The Impact of Vote-by-Mail on California Elections

by Lillian Ewing, published
Easy Vote-by-Mail Option in California

The California Secretary of State, Debra Brown, has made it convenient for Californians to vote by mail. California’s stance on mail-in voting (“vote-by-mail”) is permissive to say the least:

“Any registered voter may vote using a vote-by-mail ballot instead of going to the polls on Election Day.”

Further, this can be done extremely soon before the election: voters can mail their requests to vote by mail up until a week before the day of the election. For the November 6, 2012 election in California, this means that any voter could request a vote-by-mail ballot up until October 30th.  Voters can start voting as early as 29 days before an election. There are further options for permanent vote-by-mail and military and overseas vote-by-mail.

The Rise of Voting by Mail

Voting by mail is on the rise in California and its effect is by no means small. Statistics for vote-by-mail ballot (absentee ballot) usage have been taken for both primary and general elections in the state of California from 1962 through 2010.

In 1962, a mere 2.63 percent of the ballots for the general election were vote-by-mail ballots.  By 1986, the percentage for the general election was still under ten percent, but it started to rise quickly until 2000, when almost one quarter of ballots were mailed in. In 2008, 41.64 percent of ballots, totaling 13.7 million ballots, were cast by mail for the presidential election and, in 2010, 48.44 percent of ballots were absentee.

The 2012 statistics are only available for the primary election but they show that the trend is continuing. An astounding 65.15 percent of voters requested to vote by mail in California. In comparison to 2008, there was a 20 percent increase in mail-in ballots requested in 2012. The statistics are simply staggering and show a trend that shows no sign of stopping in California:

"Vote by-mail in my [Contra Costa] county will be 60 percent of the vote cast and statewide it might hit 50," according to Steve Weird, Clerk in Contra Costa County of California.

The Impact of Voting by Mail on Campaign Strategy

The impact of the early vote-by-mail option is significant. The option of voting by mail 29 days before Election Day in California has a “direct impact on campaign strategy” by causing campaigns to allocate their resources differently. They have to win votes earlier than they would if a voter waited to vote until Election Day.

According to Adam Fetcher, the Obama campaign’s deputy press secretary, “By encouraging our supporters to vote early, we can focus our resources more efficiently on Election Day to make sure those less likely to vote get out to the polls.”

The GOP has also changed its focus due to the prevalence of vote-by-mail, changing its “ground-game efforts” in several battleground states to focus on the absentee votes at an earlier stage in the campaign.  It is not hard to rationally conclude that the vote-by-mail option has changed the face of the 2012 election in California.

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