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The Washington Post
Sunday, November 29, 1998; Page A01

Growing Use Of Mail Voting Puts Its Stamp On Campaigns Early Voters Are Targeted, Reducing Election Day Focus

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer

Brian Baird knew he had blown the election two years ago when the cheerful old lady whose vote he was soliciting told the Democratic candidate for Congress that she had already voted -- by absentee ballot. "She said she kept a shoe box on her kitchen table, where she put everything she received about the candidates," recalled Baird, from Washington state's 3rd Congressional District. "When she was ready to vote, she would dig into her box and study the literature. "I remember thinking two things when I hung up the phone: Bless her heart, she's doing her level best to make an informed choice. And I wasn't in her shoe box."

It used to be that voting by mail -- known as absentee balloting -- was an option available only to those legitimately out-of-town or physically unable to vote on Election Day. And targeting those potentially early voters for their support was a luxury only the historically well-financed Republicans could afford. But in recent years, in an effort to accommodate voters and boost turnout, an increasing number of states such as Washington have turned to "no-fault" absentee balloting, as well as to providing early voting at polling stations that remain open for weeks before Election Day. More than 20 states have in place one or both of these early voting options, most of which allow voters to cast their ballot up to 21 days before the election without having to provide a reason for doing so.

This growing trend has already begun to dramatically alter the way candidates such as Baird do business -- driving up campaign costs and sprouting a cottage industry of political operatives with expertise in mail balloting.

Campaigns that have traditionally focused on a single day in November, when voters were expected to cast their ballots, now find they must also aggressively identify and reach the early voters if they hope to win. In some no-fault absentee states, candidates are sending out hundreds of thousands of absentee applications -- at their own expense -- stuffed with campaign literature. Baird, for example, who lost his 1996 race -- and by 887 late-counted absentee ballots -- would not make the same mistake twice. The 42-year-old psychologist spent $1.6 million on his 1998 race, nearly $1 million more than in 1996, and much of it went toward targeting early mail voters. His campaign telephoned about 100,000 potential absentee voters, sent them applications and made three early literature drops to reach them. Baird himself made a big show of voting by mail 12 days early, rather than on Election Day. In the end, an extraordinary 54 percent of his district voted by mail, and this time Baird won handily. But it wasn't easy, or cheap. Considering the primary as well as the general election, Baird said, "we essentially had to run four campaigns to reach everyone." Advocates say early voting increases participation by making ballots more accessible to a broader group of people over a longer period. Skeptics contend that, rather than attracting new voters, such a protracted process is more apt to cause customary voters to make early, ill-informed choices before they have studied the candidates and the issues. The District, Maryland and Virginia do not offer no-fault early voting.

"By giving people the opportunity to vote early, you are essentially depriving them of information that may come out toward the end of a campaign because you are diffusing the focus away from Election Day," said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate. In addition, county election administrators worry that liberal mail voting minimizes safeguards and encourages fraud. Election experts further fret that early voting in general could end up distorting and confusing the process for an already apathetic electorate, and ultimately drive participation down.

In what is viewed as a revolutionary step, Oregon will be the first state in the nation to go to an all-mail ballot in the next cycle, the result of a November initiative approved by 69 percent of the electorate. Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling, a major proponent of the referendum, believes that in today's fast-moving and hectic society, the voter has to be accommodated. "The polling place as a mechanism is an unnecessary obstacle for people exercising their franchise," Keisling said in an interview. He noted that when the state voted totally by mail in the 1996 presidential primary, the turnout was one of the highest in the nation at 57 percent.

Still, critics maintain that a permanent mail system cannot help but invite fraud because ballots can land in the wrong hands. They point to the Miami mayoral race last year, the outcome of which was eventually overturned when a court threw out approximately 5,000 fraudulent absentee ballots. "We might as well put ballots on cereal boxes," said Deborah Phillips, president of the Arlington-based Voting Integrity Project, which has filed a federal lawsuit to block the Oregon initiative on the grounds that it violates federal law requiring congressional and presidential elections to take place on the same day in November. Phillips noted that no-fault absentee voting is further complicated by the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (known as Motor- Voter), which greatly relaxed registration requirements. States must now allow registration by mail -- without any form of identification -- and at state agencies such as the department of motor vehicles. The arrangement, say critics like Phillips, allows ineligible -- and even nonexistent -- voters to get on the rolls. Someone determined to steal an election, she maintained, could -- through public records -- identify bogus registrants or those not likely to vote, and send in fraudulent absentee-ballot applications for them. "There are legitimate procedural concerns on how [mail balloting] works. . . . You can have the highest turnout in the world, but if people don't believe the process was honest, then it really doesn't matter what the turnout was," said Bill Kimberling, deputy director of the office of election administration at the Federal Election Commission. With respect to turnout, those who have studied early voting acknowledge that it tends to secure those already inclined to vote rather than increase the rolls. "The underlying concept is convenience," said Michael W. Traugott of the University of Michigan, who studied the Oregon model. "Habitual voters who might not have voted are more apt to vote by mail . . . [or] if you're at a mall and you see a voting booth, and you otherwise hadn't thought about it, you'll do it." Gans said studies conducted by his organization have indicated that voter participation actually decreases in states with early options because, "instead of mobilizing voters toward a particular point in the process, you're decreasing their focus and therefore reducing the degree of turnout."

But those who managed Rep. Lois Capps's competitive race for reelection to the House dispute those conclusions, crediting the California Democrat's victory to their success in coaxing 18,000 occasional voters to mail in ballots for Capps. In fact, between 1996 and 1998 the number of mail ballots in that district jumped from 33,000 to 64,000. "Her margin of victory directly correlates to the mail votes," said Susan Burnside, a California consultant who specializes in absentee balloting and who called the Capps campaign "the Rolls Royce" of mail operations.

California has one of the nation's most liberal mail-voting laws. Partisan campaigns are permitted to reprint official applications for absentee ballots, personalize them, mail them to supporters and then retrieve them before turning them over to the county clerk's office, which then mails the voters the actual ballots. With a cadre of volunteers, Burnside said, the Capps campaign sent 300,000 applications advocating Capps to potential supporters, recorded the returns and then followed up with repeated phone calls to ensure people had sent in their applications, received their ballots and then voted -- for Capps. In all, the consultant estimated that the campaign called 140,000 people three times each. "The process is not for the faint of heart," conceded Burnside. "It's high-maintenance, high-dollar and it's a lot of physical work."

For sure, some operatives complain that early voting puts enormous pressure on a campaign to present a sustained message over a long period, since there's no way of knowing exactly when each person will vote. Because of this, they stress, early voting can give an unfair advantage to the well-known and the well-financed candidates who attract support from the marginally informed on the strength of their name recognition. Paul Frick, political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the committee advises candidates to take these extra costs into consideration when developing fund-raising goals.

The polling booth guarantees privacy for voters. But when a person is filling out a ballot at home, they could be subject to intimidation, mail balloting critics say.

"It could become difficult or uncomfortable for a person to cast a different vote than her family. And how do we protect the elderly from pressure?" asked an adviser to a campaign that relied heavily on mail balloting.

In addition, the learning curve for administering and running these early voting campaigns is steep and allows ample opportunity for chaos. Nowhere was this more evident than in New Mexico's Bernalillo County -- the state's most populous electoral district -- where a brouhaha over the law prompted the resignation of a Republican election official and shut down the process for more than a week during a June special election.

In that state, the political parties may handle the applications for a mail ballot, but they may not alter them. Rival campaigns were found to have changed the applications that they sent out for the special election in the 1st Congressional District: Democrats altered the return address, and the GOP stamped on the word "special."

Ultimately, county clerk Judy Woodward refused to process about 10,000 applications for 10 days until she could satisfy the legal requirement and broker a compromise between the complaining campaigns. The intensity of both parties in getting out the mail vote this year was such that, between the special election and the November elections, mail voters in the county increased from 14,000 to 36,000.

But not everyone thought that was a good thing. "It was a nightmare, and I don't see that it benefited anyone -- least of all the voters who didn't get to know the candidates any better," said Woodward. "The pluses? A lot of printers were well-paid, a lot of stamps were sold and it kept people employed." Some voters, however, are clearly seeing the advantages of early voting. In Houston's Harris County, the nation's fourth-largest voting jurisdiction with 7 million registered voters, early voting -- but not no-fault absentee balloting -- has been available since 1991. It costs the county an additional $250,000 per election to pay for opening 26 polling stations 30 days before Election Day. "But the voters of Texas love it," said Tony J. Sirvello, Harris County's administrator of elections. "They want that flexibility."

Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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