Early Herds

Can't Wait 'Til Election Day? Vote Now!

By Jim Nintzel

ELECTION DAY WON'T be here until next month. But by the time September 8 rolls around, a big percentage of the electorate will have cast a ballot in the county's early-voting program.

Early voting used to be called absentee voting, and it used to be a tightly regulated system. But in 1991, the Arizona Legislature loosened the rules, hoping to make voting easier, particularly for senior citizens.

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 1996, that number jumped to nearly 24 percent, with 64,548 early votes out of 270,393 ballots cast.

Currents Early voting in primaries has likewise increased. During the 1992 September primary, less than 11 percent of the voters cast an early ballot (11,500 out of 106,747 total ballots). In the 1996 primary, the number of early votes increased to almost 19 percent (16,740 out of 89,184 total ballots).

But as those numbers also show, early voting hasn't helped more people vote. Indeed, the number of votes cast actually dropped between 1992 and 1996, although the number of registered voters in Pima County increased by almost 21,000.

"The number of people voting earlier has increased, but that has not necessarily increased the number of people voting," says Pima County Recorder F. Ann Rodriguez.

Aggressive campaigning has been part of the increase in early voting. These days, a serious campaign can't afford to neglect an early voting campaign, says Hank Kenski, a professor of communications at the UA and an aide to U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

"I think it's had a major impact in terms of how (campaigns) have to allocate their resources," says Kenski. "You're not going to be competitive if you don't have an early-voting program. I think it's particularly true now that turnout is dropping. You have to lock your votes up."

Campaigns typically target high-propensity voters with mailers that include a form requesting an early ballot. Some campaigns have the voters send the form directly to the Recorder's Office, which then sends the ballot to the voter.

Other campaigns have voters send the forms back to the campaign so strategists can track the requests. By timing the drop of the forms at the Recorder's Office, the campaign can land propaganda in the mailbox at the same time the early ballot arrives. The potential downside: If campaign workers lose even one request, they've committed a felony.

Savvy campaigns also track the daily list of ballots mailed out of the Recorder's Office so they can reach out to voters within days of the early ballot's arrival.

Kenski predicts early voting numbers will increase in the future, with both parties learning how to work the system.

"Traditionally, Republicans had an advantage," Kenski says. "You would look at the early voting prior to 1991, and you would normally expect the Republicans to have a 3-to-2 margin. That's not true anymore. The National Democratic Party has sent out a lot of turnout specialists. Democrats really beat the Republicans in 1996. Both parties have the technology and the know-how. It's up for grabs and depends on who has the best organization and the best follow-through in terms of contacting the people. Everybody has to allocate some campaign resources to this."

Another prediction: Early voting will change the nature of negative campaigning.

"It's going to be a lot more difficult to have, say, the last-weekend hit," Kenski says. "It's going to have some impact, but if 25 percent of the vote is already in, it makes it more difficult for someone to go with that last-weekend mailer where their opponent can't really rebut it. That means your negatives are going to have to come a lot earlier to be effective."

While the parties have discovered early voting, Kenski notes the media have yet to pick up on the dynamics.

"They're waiting too long (to begin covering candidates)," he says. "The irony is, people (in the media) would say, 'We'll wait until the last two weeks--nobody is going to pay attention until then.' Well, if the people are voting a month early, then (reporters) are missing the boat."

Early voting begins Thursday, August 6. Early voting locations include the main Recorder's Office (115 Church Ave.), the Recorder's East Annex (6920 E. Broadway), Plaza Sonora (2860 W. Ina Road), South Park at Palmdale (3939 S. Park Ave., suite 116), Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (823 E. Speedway) and the Green Valley Business Park (125 W. Calle de las Tiendas, suite 129A). To learn more or to request an early ballot, call 623-2649. TW

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