In a week those that have elected to vote by mail will be getting their ballots via the USPS, and a flurry of activity from political candidates will begin, mostly via expensive direct mail and TV/radio appeals. That’s because the conventional wisdom surrounding mail ballot voters is often stuck in the past, without a real understanding of how mail ballot voting has changed in California.
In the past, “absentee voters” were voters who were either out of town on Election Day, or conscientious voters of a particular political and ethnic persuasion who didn’t want to miss a chance to vote. Thus, this mini-electorate was different in its composition, and behavior, than the general voter population.
Most of these voters returned their ballots fairly quickly, and soon became a key part of any winning election strategy. Reaching the voters quickly, with a targeted, conservative to moderate message was often the difference between winning and losing a close race.
Thanks to some changes in California election law, the composition and behavior of people voting by mail has changed. Today, anyone can register to be a permanent mail ballot voter, and not have to keep re-applying for an absentee ballot every election.
With so many people opting for the convenience of mailing their ballot in, this group of voters is no longer monolithic. More importantly, the behavior of these voters has changed. Instead of quickly filling out the ballot and returning it within a week or so of receiving said ballot, voters are often holding on to them longer, due in large part to the huge number of ballot initiatives one has to wade through.
In June’s Super Idiotic Primary, where we had primaries full of Unknowns and a dogpile of initiatives, many elections officials were reporting abysmally low rates of return of mail ballots. People were hanging on to them until the last minute and creating an avalanche of ballots in the postal system – often delaying the final count in close elections for days, even weeks!
So what is the lesson for politicians and their associated politickers? Simple – the nature of mail ballot voters (“absentee voter” is no longer an accurate term) has changed significantly, and the strategy to reach them needs to change as well. Trying to dump a pile of mail and TV on voters the exact day they will be receiving their ballot in the mail will result only in ensuring that the voter, overwhelmed with campaign appeals, will not hear their message with any clarity.
For smaller campaigns or underfunded races, this can be fatal. By blowing a significant amount of money on October 6th, the same day, they may lose out on a chance to send a targeted message out more than once. Worse, unless they’re producing something that truly sticks out from the pack, the voter is going to send their piece of paper into the recycling bin, unread. (Besides, Battlestar Galactica premieres that night, and many smart, sophisticated voters will be glued to their TVs, not the mailbox. 🙂 )
Instead of rushing to send Yet Another Piece of Paper in the junk mail blizzard on October 6th, campaigns (especially those without huge piles of cash) should consider sending their message to mail ballot voters out a few days later, since it’s unlikely the majority of ballots will be returned within a week.
They should also consider alternative methods of reaching registered voters, such as Advocacy Inc.’s innovative email system and email an interactive email to mail ballot voters. It’s a safe bet that most campaigns won’t be doing anything like this, so the message is likely to stand out. And, if there’s a level of interactivity as well, it’s going to create more of a memorable impression than a plain vanilla postcard.
Another way for campaigns to reach these voters cheaply and effectively is the use of automated calls, such as those provided by Flying Colors USA, based in the East Bay. Traditionally, automated calls are used for Get Out The Vote (GOTV) appeals at the end of the campaign. However, they can also be very effective at reminding mail ballot voters of a candidate’s message during the week after they’ve received their ballot – especially if they feature a prominent supporter or member of the community.
With all the large scale campaigns being waged, from US Senate, to statewide initiatives, to local offices, voters will have an unprecedented wave of conventional political warfare aimed at their mailbox and television. For candidates to be effective, especially those without untold riches, being creative will be essential to cut through the clutter and reach the voters they need on Election Day.
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