Kuff and Campos (and Campos again) post some good news about mail ballot applications. Namely, the hubbub is on the fact that applications received so far this year outpace the Mail Ballot votes cast in 2012. Emphasis mine, of course.
The effort to catch up to the Hotze/GOP mail ballot program certain ain’t nothing. But it’s still a game of catchup and it’s a game that won’t necessarily show clear results once the Early Vote totals are in on Election Night. As I see it, the markers for this are as follows:
» Does the return rate change (presumably, drop) as a result of a bigger pool of voters sending in applications?
» Is the growth in Mail Ballot voters just cannibalizing from voters who would otherwise vote early or on Election Day?
» Is the dollar amount expended to play catchup among a small pool of voters really worth the effort given the opportunity cost of working the other 93% of the electorate?
While it would no doubt be more entertaining on Election Night to see results that didn’t have Dems in a big hole at the county level, we obviously won’t see the real impact of this program until much later. One of the first rules of campaigning is you do the work you have the money to do the work with. And in this case, raising money to run a Mail Ballot program is easier than some of the things I wish we were doing instead. And, as Kuff notes, there’s no single silver bullet – there needs to be a mail ballot program of some type and there needs to be about a dozen other things done. Battleground Texas and Texas Organizing Project are complements to what the Harris County Democratic Party are doing and several campaigns around the county (including the one for my boss) add to the mix as well.
All that to say: congrats to all on some great work for this component. I’m glad that the work is being done … but I’d just as soon not assume that the game has been forever changed in our favor because of this.
Campos dutifully points out that about 75% of 2012 Mail Ballot Applications were returned as a cast vote. So that’s the marker for what we should see at the end of Early Voting. We’ll know the number of applications sent in and the number of mail ballots returned as votes. Of all the markers, I would assume that this should be reasonably likely to clock in somewhere close to the same 75% based on the assumption that if someone goes through the trouble of sending in an application, there’s a decent chance that they do so with the intention of voting. From my work as an Early Vote clerk in 2013, I saw the flip side of this: people who didn’t want to vote by mail, but were pestered into sending in an application and complaining to high heaven about the “chaser” phone calls that they really wish would end. So that reaction is a reality, but it doesn’t seem to be a majority reaction. Here’s hoping that remains true.
The cannibalization factor is one that I know the Party has a ready answer for. And it involves some portion of those applications being among voters who vote in Presidential years, but not in Gov-year elections. It’s not that I think the share of Pres-only voters that we’re hitting is complete bunk, but I’m a little skeptical of the scale that we’re talking about. One the countywide level, Dems need to make up between 30-50,000 votes to elect a straight slate of judges to the bench. I think the wildly optimistic high end for what a mail ballot program will generate at around 15,000. Which would be fine if that ended up being the case. But there is always a pool of Pres-only voters who end up showing up in Gov-years, just as there is always a pool of nontraditional city-year voters who show up for city elections. My experience is in an apartment-heavy, highly-mobile electorate, but I’m used to seeing 25% new voters in elections where we expect only “the usual voters” showing up. That may be on the high end, but I don’t think it’s beyond the pale to suggest that about 15% of the electorate is going to be new voters. Ultimately, though, we won’t know this until the full voter roster comes back. So whatever celebratory numbers we see about Mail Ballot voters should be kept in check until we know all the facts.
The question of opportunity cost is a longer-term issue. Ideally, I would think that we would hope to see the share of the electorate from Mail Ballots remain roughly the same while improving our showing among those Mail Ballot votes. That would suggest minimal cannibalization and suggest that the “new voter” pool is legitimately separate from what normally drives new voters to the polls on any given election. Those are tough metrics to hit. And I would love to see them be hit. But if all you’ve done is move some Early, In-Person Voters over to the Mail Voter column, the issue of where those dollars could have been better spent ought to be a question seriously addressed.
It’s not like we haven’t been here before. Early Vote 2008 returns were celebrated on a daily basis until candidates and poll workers realized that Election Day was a barren wasteland of activity since so many votes had been banked. Efforts to bank votes earlier in the process aren’t worth zero dollars. But if you’re challenge is to make a non-Pres electorate look like a Pres-year electorate, I would argue that two of the worst places to start would be knocking on single-family home doors and focusing efforts on Over-65 voters. Targeting voters is all fine and well, but it still leaves significant swathes of geography untouched by so-called modern campaign techniques. Whatever the results ultimately show, here’s the math for what we’ve seen before:
Share STRAIGHT PARTY | GOV | US SEN | Cast Votes | of Electorate ------------------------|----------------|---------------|-------------|--------------- 2012 40.5% - 59.2% | --- | 41.6% - 57.0% | 76,025 | 6.3% 2010 32.0% - 67.6% | 41.9% - 56.9% | --- | 55,510 | 6.9% 2008 33.8% - 65.8% | --- | 35.6% - 62.8% | 67,556 | 5.7% 2006 38.4% - 61.2% | 29.7% - 47.7% | 34.9% - 63.9% | 23,314 | 3.8% 2004 32.5% - 67.3% | --- | --- | 47,163 | 4.3% 2002 36.1% - 63.6% | 33.5% - 65.6% | 36.3% - 63.1% | 34,993 | 5.3%
Democrats can win in Harris County by two methods: either what Battleground, HCDP, TOP and others are doing make the difference, or we were going to win anyway with a nice, helping hand from demographics. Ultimately, I’m fine with either. We can haggle the details after the election if we’re successful.