A majority of the votes in November’s Lodi City Council race were cast through the mail, in some cases days or even weeks before election day.
Throughout the years, voters have opted to mail in ballots, resulting in candidates starting campaigns earlier and finding more focused ways to campaign to this growing demographic.
“Election day starts 30 days before you go to the polls. If you are not concentrating on those absentee voters, you are done,” said Steve Ding, a former staff director of the U.S. House Resources Committee under chairman Richard Pombo.
In the Lodi City Council race, 69 percent, or 29,242 of the votes, were cast through absentee ballots.
Campaign consultant Don Parsons said candidates have to run essentially two campaigns.
This is especially true in Lodi because the population is older, which means they are more likely to cast their ballot by mail, said Parsons, who worked on Phil Katzakian’s campaign and owns Stockton-based Strategic Research.
Voting before election day is a trend increasing throughout the country because Americans crave convenience, said Chris Sinclair, a North Carolina-based political consultant with Cornerstone Solutions.
His company has run campaigns in 38 different states, including California, and he tells candidates that an absentee campaign is integral to winning.
“If you don’t get your message out early, you might not be able to make it up on election day,” Sinclair said.
Traditionally in elections, Sinclair recommends that his candidates communicate with voters three to six times before they step into the voting booth.
With absentee voting, it speeds up the process because candidates need to fundraise and campaign earlier to make sure their message is out there, Sinclair said.
“You have to cut through the noise to make sure they know that you are on the ballot,” he said.
As election day approached, candidate Timothy Reed often campaigned outside of Safeway and said most of the people he stopped had already cast a ballot.
Candidate John Johnson did almost all of his campaigning through the mail. He sent mailers around the time absentee voters received their ballots in the mail.
Then, as election day got closer, he sent out another mailer to those who had yet to cast their ballot. Candidates can find out through the San Joaquin Registrar of Voters who is registered to vote by mail and if they have voted already.
Johnson said success in absentee voting requires the same thing that is needed for a traditional campaign.
“You can’t lose sight of the fact that this is money. Four years ago when I ran, I didn’t have that much money. I didn’t have much more this time, but I spent it differently,” he said.
Incumbent Larry Hansen, who edged out Johnson to win re-election, sent out two mailings to vote-by-mail voters. He also put up billboards throughout town, went to forums and bought some newspaper ads.
Even though he did focus on absentee votes, he said it is important that candidates still remember that there is a sizable number of people heading to the ballot box.
“I’m one of them. I’m a traditionalist. I like to go to the ballot box and vote,” Hansen said.
Alan Nakanishi, who won every precinct in the city, said mailers have always been an important part of his campaign, and with absentee voters, candidates need to make sure they are knocking on their doors first.
Voters Janet Nitschke and Fred Knust both said they cast their ballots through the mail because it is easier.
Nitschke just recently started voting by mail. She usually waits until near election day to cast her ballot.
About five years ago, Knust started voting by mail because he said life is busy. He usually votes as soon as he receives the ballot but waited this year.
“There were so many things up in the air,” Knust said.
When Mayor Bob Johnson ran in 2004, he did not directly target absentee voters, but he changed his strategy in 2008. He sent out brochures specifically to the absentees, and if he were to run again, he would consider sending out multiple fliers.
Because people are voting by mail, Johnson said it puts more emphasis on mailings, and decreases the budget for other forms of campaigning, like newspaper advertising.
Ding said absentee voters require a different strategy because voters who go to the polls receive a variety of mailings and have more time to familiarize themselves with the candidates.
“Absentee voters are more hungry for information,” he said.
But at least one local politician has never focused on absentee voters, even during her last campaign in 2008. Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce overwhelmingly won the election with 12,952 votes, and she has never done a mailer or researched absentee voters.
“I knock on every door, period. I’ve never had the resources to run a campaign in that manner,” she said.