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In early October, John Townsend checked his voice mail one day to find he had missed a call from the governor of Minnesota. The message on his answering machine featured a prerecorded message from a cheerful Tim Pawlenty informing Townsend that the absentee ballot he had requested was in the mail. This surprised Townsend, since he had made no such request. A couple of days later, he answered a similar call.
"I didn't hang up, and [the recording said] that I should have received my absentee ballot by now," Townsend recalls. "He encouraged something to the effect of voting Republican. But the bigger question I had was, 'Why send an absentee ballot if I didn't ask for one?'"
The short answer is that both the Democratic and Republican parties are directing vast resources to "banking votes"--that is, to locking up a number of ballots weeks before November 2. Conventional wisdom points to the role absentee ballots played in Iowa in 2000, when George Bush saw a 7,000-vote advantage in ballots cast on Election Day turn into a narrow victory for Al Gore when the 11,000-vote margin he enjoyed in absentee ballots was factored in. Traditionally, absentee voting has been thought to favor Republicans, but in 2000, states such as Arizona saw a large number of absentee votes cast for Gore. The Republicans are determined to not let that happen again.
But there is a more complex answer for Townsend, a 45-year-old who lives in the Wedge neighborhood in south Minneapolis. For starters, Townsend, a warehouse manager who also writes about arts for Lavender, a local GLBT magazine, caucused for John McCain in early 2000. He also voted for Jesse Ventura in the 1998 gubernatorial race. In campaign-speak, Townsend, who is openly anti-Bush, counts as an undecided voter.
In many states, rules regarding absentee voting have changed. Many used to require a tangible reason for mailing a vote early, but now such requirements have been waived. Further, there is the rise of so-called "early voting." States including Florida now open polling weeks before November, a practice that became more widespread during the 2002 midterm elections. Historically, absentee ballots have consistently been around 5 percent of the general vote; this year early estimates say that absentee ballots and other forms of early voting may constitute 20 to 25 percent of the overall vote.
As the role of absentee voting has grown, anecdotes like Townsend's have become more commonplace. There's the former Burnsville resident who just moved to Orlando two months ago and started getting voice mails from Bush. There's the Minneapolis resident who is wintering in Austin, Texas, and tried in vain to get an absentee ballot. After he came back home and signed up for one at the GOP booth at the Minnesota State Fair, he returned to Austin to find not one but two absentee ballots in his mail. It all adds up to a nationwide strategy for Team Bush.
"The Republicans are encouraging it as a tactic," surmises David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University. "And they are far ahead of the Democrats in embracing the possibilities of the absentee vote."
Schultz believes the Republican plan is multifaceted. For starters, the move is driven by a desire to get out the vote and avoid problems--like bad weather--that might keep people away from the polls. Further, Schultz believes Republicans are worried that complications in implementing the Help America Vote Act in the nine states that opted to observe it this year--including Minnesota--might lead to long lines and lost votes.
Schultz also believes that Republicans want to start collecting votes for Bush to guard against some crisis or downturn in the Bush campaign before Election Day. "Most undecided voters are going to break against the president in the last few days of a campaign," Schultz says. "Historically, these people vote overwhelmingly against the incumbent president. If we believe the polls and support [for Bush] continues to erode, the Republicans would rather hedge against it."
Finally, Schultz notes "possible mischief issues." For instance, he notes that the promotion of absentee voting may be intended to create the impression that voting this year is going to be a big hassle, possibly dissuading some people from turning out at all. He also believes that the GOP wants to create a paper trail in districts where the party is historically strong, in case problems with electronic voting systems land this election in the courts.
"It makes for a paper trail for litigation," Schultz argues, noting that in some districts, conversely, Republicans want to rely on electronic voting. "It's cynicism and hypocrisy we see now. They're saying, 'You don't need paper trails in some places, but we want our supporters to have them.'" (Schultz adds that there is far less scrutiny toward absentee ballots, which are more vulnerable to vote tampering in the view of many experts--but also more difficult to criticize politically. "If you raise a question about [absentee votes]," Schultz points out, "people say, 'See, you're screwing the military vote.'")
As for the phone calls themselves, Schultz points out that McCain-Feingold changes to campaign finance law might make such phone-calling campaigns more problematic: If the Minnesota Republican Party is paying for the calls from Pawlenty, it would be illegal for the governor to use those calls to solicit votes for Bush or any other candidate for federal office (including Republican candidates for Congress).
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