In response to the potential "logistical nightmare" of counting ballots by hand in February's primary election, San Diego county is starting a huge push for absentee voting. Reported today in the Union-Tribune, San Diego County's registrar of voters will send out postcards to more than 1 million voters pushing the absentee option, hoping to offset the number of paper ballots cast on election day. This, of course, is in response to Secretary of State Debra Bowen's ruling that only one touch screen machine per polling place would be allowed following her extensive study of potential security problems.
While San Diego has a particular love affair with Diebold which sets it apart from many other parts of the state (Diebold is, by contract, required to replace any decertified machines), it seems unlikely that it will be only San Diego that makes this sort of push for absentee voting. So what does this mean?
It means that absentee ballots would start being mailed to a huge portion of California on January 7. What is the significance of January 7? It's exactly one week before the current date of the Iowa Caucus and the beginning of the primary voting season. In 2004's presidential primary, 34.31% of votes were absentee, and in 2006 that number in the primary jumped to 46.9%. So if California sees a major jump in the number of absentee voters from 2006 and 2004 numbers, it could set California up as, in practical terms, the first state voting.
This is hardly a given. Chris Bowers has a series of posts predicting that Iowa and New Hampshire could move into the end of 2007, in which case much of the traditional buzz from their events would remain influential. But if not, early candidate impressions in California completely change the delegate math. Almost 6.7 million ballots were cast absentee in 2004's primary, and simply a jump to 50% would mean that 9.75 million people voted absentee, largely without the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire performance (also, by the way, more than twice the combined populations of Iowa and New Hampshire). That's a huge swing. And so where are California's Democrats trending? According to pollster, pretty strongly and consistently towards Hillary Clinton.
About a month ago on Calitics, Julia Rosen asked "Where is Obama's California Campaign? In light of the early reactions to Secretary of State Bowen's decertification, the question may more specifically be, what's the absentee strategy? If Californians are voting in mid-January, all previous bets are off and maybe the state actually gets all that presidential love and attention it's been lusting after. The impact on the conventional wisdom and the cable news won't be immediate because these votes won't enter the public consciousness until February 5 along with all of the votes cast at the polls. So Iowa, New Hampshire, and all pre-national primary states will still get the attention and the glory. But if the biggest prize has already been awarded, February 5th becomes much less about hype and much more about the early action. And depending on how it manifests itself, it's probably not such a bad thing to have people vote on the candidates and not the media hype out of Iowa and New Hampshire.