Early Warning

Here's A Sure-Fire Way To Attract Junk Mail At Election Time.

IF YOU WANT the candidates to come to you, request an early ballot.

I called the county recorder's office to ask for mine on Thursday, August 10, just as early voting was getting underway. Two days later, the ballot had arrived in my mailbox. Within the next week, the flow of campaign propaganda was in full swing.

I happen to be a highly prized Independent voter in three of the top Democratic contests on the September 12 primary ballot: Congressional District 5, which pits state Sen. George Cunningham against Mary Judge Ryan, a lawyer in the Pima County Attorney's Office, for the chance to take on Congressman Jim Kolbe; Supervisorial District 5, where Democrat Dan Medina is seeking to unseat incumbent Raúl Grijlava; and Legislative District 13, where four Democrats (Howard Shore, Ted Downing, Colette Barajas and Gabrielle Giffords) are seeking two seats in the state House of Representatives.

An aggressive early ballot campaign is the hallmark of a healthy campaign. More than a dozen candidates have mailed propaganda to me since I first requested an early ballot, including Justice of the Peace candidates Paul Simon and John Molloy, who were two of the first.

Both Cunningham and Ryan have hit me up for a vote; Cunningham's glossy color brochure reflects the fact that he's been able to raise more money than Ryan, whose cardboard mailer was drab in comparison.

I expected mail from all four Democrats in District 13, but only Giffords and Downing delivered. Shore hasn't yet made a pitch for my vote, while the Barajas campaign has stalled because as of last week she was still waiting for campaign funds through the state's new Clean Election program.

Grijalva's flier--I actually got two on the same day, suggesting someone wasn't paying attention when the mailer was assembled--was by far the worst. No biographical information, no list of accomplishments, no endorsements. It simply congratulated me for fulfilling my civic responsibilities by voting and asked me to consider voting for him.

A few days later, I got a mailer from Grijalva's opponent, Medina, asking me if I wanted to order an absentee ballot. Guess he's working from an old list.

Early voting has become a vital and unpredictable element of modern political campaign.

"From a campaign's perspective, it's probably the most scary part of elections today," says former Tucson mayor Tom Volgy, who teaches in the political science department at the University of Arizona. "For the last 30 days, you have an election every day going on. It becomes much, much more time-consuming and expensive to fight 30 elections than to fight one or two."

Early voting is a relatively new phenomenon in campaign dynamics. In 1991, the Arizona Legislature loosened the absentee ballot rules, hoping to boost turnout. Since then, early voting has been on the rise. In the 1992 general election, approximately 16 percent of the voters--46,863 out of 287,718--voted early. In 1998, that number jumped to more than 26 percent, with 52,008 early votes out of 195,580 ballots cast.

Early voting in primaries has likewise increased. During the 1992 September primary, less than 11 percent of the voters cast early ballots (11,500 out of 106,747 total ballots). In the 1998 primary, the number of early votes roughly doubled to 22 percent (14,832 out of 66,929 total ballots). This year, the number will be even higher. As of August 28, 22,726 voters had requested early ballots.

The numbers also show that early voting hasn't increased turnout. Indeed, the number of votes cast actually dropped between 1992 and 1998, even though there were more than 3,600 more registered voters.

"It has made it more convenient for those who vote to vote, but they probably would have voted anyway," says Volgy.

Volgy predicts that early voting will continue to climb, noting that nearly one-third of the voters cast early ballots in some contests elsewhere in the United States.

Much of the increase in early voting has been driven by the campaigns, which urge voters to request early ballots as part of their strategy. Many will mass-mail high-propensity voters, offering to order an early ballot form for them. In some cases, voters reply directly to the county recorder's office; in others, they send the forms back to the campaign, which tracks the responses and times the mailing of another propaganda piece to coincide as closely as possible to the arrival of the ballot.

Even though there's no contested primary for Republicans in District 13, some GOP candidates mass-mailed Independent voters asking them to request Republican primary ballots. The strategy: Keep the independents from participating in the Democratic primary and possibly developing attachments to the Democratic candidates.

Smart campaigners also track requests for early ballots and direct mail to those households--which explains the pile of campaign propaganda spread out on my desk.

All this effort to attract early voters doesn't come cheap.

"It probably has exacerbated the money issue," Volgy says, "because rich campaigns can deal with this problem more easily than poorer campaigns and money begins to play a bigger and bigger role. The technology of tracking it and the direct mail involved is so expensive that it creates a built-in bias. I don't think it was intended that way, but it's a natural consequence."

But there may be an upside, too.

"All the campaigns hope that one of the positive effects of early voting is that it minimizes the last ugly hit because it will influence fewer people than it did before," Volgy says. "You can't do the last ugly hit 30 days out because there's an enormous amount of time to respond. You can do the last ugly hit the weekend before the election knowing that people can't respond, but you will have also missed maybe about a third of the public. So there's some hope that last ugly hits get used less because of early voting, but we don't have enough experience to be able to tell."

Call 623-2649 to have a ballot mailed to your home, or visit one of the early polling places set up through September 8. Voting booths are open between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at any of the following County Recorder offices:

· Old County Courthouse, 115 N. Church Ave.

· Eastside office, 6920 E. Broadway Blvd. at Kolb Road, Suite D

· Midtown office, 2221 E. Broadway Blvd. at Plumer Avenue

· Northwest office, 3912 W. Ina Road at Thornydale Road, Suite 216

· Tucson Electric Park, 2800 E. Ajo Way

All locations will be closed on Labor Day.

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