Monday, October 18, 2010

Democrats’ demise: Greatly exaggerated?

We’ve been hearing it for months now from the hierophants of the punditburo: The Democrats are dead meat in this midterm election cycle. Toast, finished, over, nothing more or less than the walking dead. To go by most of the emerging prognostications, the Republicans waiting to seize control of the House and/or the Senate can walk in after the Democrats pack it in.

But a trend that’s been developing through much of the country over the years, and which is coming to a head this election, suggests something else at work. It's a given that a key to Democrats minimizing their expected losses in Congress will be getting out the vote. This election, getting the vote out may be a matter of getting voters to mail the vote in.

This November, 32 states will permit absentee voting, with ballots sent to voters by mail weeks before the election. It’s not just for overseas vacationers anymore. Increasingly, absentee ballots are used by citizens of all stripes. California, Florida, Ohio and Georgia actually offer voters the dual option of mail-in voting and polling places where people can vote; Washington state went absentee with all voting, in local elections and state races, in February 2009.

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There’s no guarantee that early voting automatically works to the Democrats’ favor. Mark Matthews, a political reporter for KGO-TV in San Francisco, reported Oct. 15 that in California’s Contra Costa County, “the early absentee returns have historically been Democratic but not this year.”

"Right now the Republicans are returning their ballots at a higher rate than the Democrats, which is unusual, it goes against what I've been watching for 10 years," said Contra Costa County Clerk Steve Weir, to KGO.

But elsewhere in the country, it’s a different story. Michael P. McDonald, an associate professor at George Mason University, reported in the Oct. 14 Huffington Post that early voting in Ohio was especially solid in two Democratic strongholds, Cuyahoga and Franklin counties. McDonald reports that more than 112,000 votes had already been cast in those areas, with two weeks before the Nov. 2 date.

McDonald notes:

“That these votes are being banked in high Democratic areas is likely welcome news for statewide Democratic candidates, like Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland who is locked in a tight battle with Republican candidate John Kasich.

For pollsters conducting surveys in Ohio, these high levels of early voting will force them to modify their likely voter modeling to account for people who have already voted. Finally, early voting in these counties raises a good question how the much-discussed enthusiasm gap towards Republicans will actually play out when it comes to voting.”

McDonald goes on to note that in Iowa, “42% of the 119,430 early voters in Iowa are registered Democrats compared with 29% registered as Republican. A county-by-county analysis shows registered Democrats in Iowa returning their mail ballots at a higher rate than Republicans.”

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There’s another reason that doomsayers might want to hold off writing the seating chart for the Democrats’ execution. Absentee balloting, and the growth of its popularity nationwide, benefit minority voters — historically more likely to be Democratic than not — by all but eliminating the more pernicious aspects of American politics they’ve had to put up with for generations.

With absentee balloting becoming the new normal, just-cast ballots mysteriously lost in transit, voting machine glitches, voter intimidation (at the polls or on the way there) and other calculated anomalies historically proven or suspected in previous elections become, effectively, a thing of the past.

That works to the advantage of the Democratic Party, whose ranks of black and Latino voters have every reason to celebrate (with a righteous relish) that solution to potential disenfranchisement by casting the ballot that’s already sitting on the kitchen table.

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"Election Day, as we know it, is not quite what it used to be. It's not just one opportunity to vote," she says. "We start voting 45 days out from an election." Broward County (Florida) Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes told NPR in a story published Sunday.

Snipes' view underscores the other way absentee balloting works in ways that enhance the fortunes of the Democratic Party this November. Like 24-hour cable channels, and the increased availability of information technology, the mail-in approach to voting is reaching Americans where they live, fitting into their life schedules. That works, often but not always, to the benefit of the party with more registered members in the working-class mainstream, an advantage Democrats enjoy.

Many states in the Northeast haven’t made the move to mail-in voting, holding fast to the traditional Election Day experience, but some are coming around to something close to it. Talking Points Memo reported on the state of Maryland testing an EIP (early in-person) voting system in advance of its Sept. 14 primary election. Some 72 percent of Marylanders voted in 2008 to amend the Maryland constitution in favor of EIP, TPM reported. If Maryland’s rationale for adopting EIP has anything to do with voter convenience, mail-in ballots could be next.

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But sure as the absentee-vote option calls for rethinking the idea of Election Day — if Snipes in Broward County is right, maybe Election Period is better — the impact of known and projected absentee voting calls into question the conventional wisdom (m’self included) that’s gotten used to adopting “turnout” as a meaningful campaign metric.

In recent weeks, a multitude of analysts have said, almost as a reflex, that the prospects for the Democrats this November hinge on turnout — using the word in the last-century context of standing in line in the rain to cast a physical ballot at the elementary school near you. It’s an assessment that’s hand-in-glove with Republican thinking that the GOP’s road to success this November depends, in some measure, on keeping turnout low (and therefore consistent with expected patterns in midterm elections).

Much of that current analysis fails to make the vastly underreported connection, to recognize that mail-in ballots aren’t independent of voter turnout, they are voter turnout, the kind of voter response that avoids problems at the polls, reflects adaptability to voters’ lives — and the one that may be the November Surprise nobody counted on.

Image credits: Absentee ballot map: J. Winton, republished under Creative Commons Attributable-Share Alike License 2.5. Iowa absentee ballots requested/returned graph: Michael P. McDonald, George Mason University.

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