Voters Facing High-Profile, High-Conflict Races are Delaying Return of Their Vote-By-Mail Ballots

Uncle Sam Sad with crowd

Uncle Sam is sad.

The maxim in OC is that 1/3 of the voters turn in their vote-by-mail ballots right away, 1/3 turn them in sometime over the course of the following few weeks, and the final third vote at the polls.  I’m not sure whether that’s true, but more than one source has proclaimed it to me with the confidence suggesting that it’s conventional wisdom.

The numbers at the Registrar of Voters office as of last night showed the number of absentee ballots received through Saturday — roughly the ones that made it into Friday’s mail, meaning that there was only a week left (and people should leave more time than this Friday!) for people to turn in their the ballots.  It’s a reasonable approximation of 50% of the total vote we would expect — maybe a little shy of that, but still informative — which some experts are forecasting may be as abysmally low as 40%.  Of course, in some places (Laguna Woods, retirement sections of Seal Beach) a higher proportion of people vote absentee and in others (Santa Ana) I understand it to be lower.

Anyway, I ran some numbers last night to see how the return of absentee ballots was going.  Here’s what I found:

Vote-by-Mail Totals thru 10-25

I’m not surprised by the low figures for Santa Ana, but I am surprised by some of the others.  I presume that the various campaigns are also running these numbers, though I haven’t been in contact with any about them.  And, as with Groundhog’s Day, from these numbers we can forecast your future: one more week of blizzards of mailers and hurricanes of commercials, because in the biggest races people just hadn’t yet made up their minds.  (And mail takes time to prepare and send.)

I was interested in tracking the 15 races that have entries into the column next to the city names.  All of CA-46 (Loretta Sanchez’s district) has a return rate about that of Santa Ana, which contains up about 45% of the absentee ballots.  That’s low, but not surprising.  Santa Ana does have a contentious Mayoral race, though, and people may be awaiting more information about Pulido’s property swap scandal.  Or perhaps I am being optimistic.

However, take a look at Anaheim: barely more than a point better than Santa Ana and over 4½ points under the county average.  In case you think that return rates in South County and the central coast are inflating those numbers, take a look at AD-73 (Gabriella vs. Brough) and CA-48 (Rohrabacher vs. Savary): they aren’t; the central coast is about half a point above the county average and South County is almost a full point below.  (We’ll come back to that one soon.)  So Anaheim’s absentees, going into last weekend, were largely either delaying their votes or not planning to vote at all.

Next come two cities that I’d expect to have higher return rates by now — except for the nature of their campaigns.  Costa Mesa is less than 2 points above Santa Ana and about 4 points below the county average.  You can probably thank Jim Righeimer for that.  GOTV becomes more important in that race, which doesn’t bode well for Riggy.  Irvine is in some ways the nastiest city race of this cycle, and it is about a tenth of a point above Costa Mesa.  Again, people are sitting it out for now — or altogether.  Choi’s supposed to win easily here — but where are his absentees?  See those numbers in Westminster and Garden Grove?  That’s what Choi is supposed to be able to do with the Asian vote in Irvine.  I’m not able to examine the voting rolls to look at East Asian majority precincts, but based on the overall figures it’s not happening.

Who else is lower than expected?  AD-65 (Quirk-Silva vs. Young Kim), from whose voters I’ve heard complaints about the barrage of attack mailers on both sides, is pretty low.  Fullerton itself, despite a pretty interesting Council race, is boosting the average a little — but not much.  Anaheim is probably dragging it down a bit, but it’s still low overall.  So those mailers and deceptive “Prop 13” ads probably aren’t going away soon.

I’m really surprised that AD-73 is so low.  This wealthy, deep-red part of the county is a full point below the county average.  Is there an explanation?  The Congressional and State Senate races aren’t going to do much for it, but one might have expected the Supervisor’s race (Ming vs. Bartlett) and the Assembly race itself to bring people out.  But Democrats and independents have little stake in the Supervisor’s race, and for Republicans it seems to be a bitter and unpleasant one.  In the Assembly race, Democrats seem very enthused about Wendy Gabriella — who has been walking precincts like nobody’s business — and I keep hearing that Republicans are really, really not enthused about Bill Brough.  They don’t want him there for 12 years, they don’t want him in party leadership, they don’t want him to run for higher office.  They want to elect someone better, for what they hope may be a dozen years, in 2016.  I feel that it would be foolish for me to predict an upset here — but you tell me: why is this area, which also has a whole lot of retirees, lagging so far behind?  I have no better answer than “Bill Brough is uninspiring.”

SD-34’s being so low is probably just due to Santa Ana, because as you can see Garden Grove and especially Westminster are doing fine. (Fountain Valley, which you don’t see on the chart, is not far behind Westminster.)  Huntington Beach is probably above the county average if you don’t count the Leisure Worlds.  This does not bode well for Jose Solorio — and if Mario Guerra beats Tony Mendoza in SD-32 because of all the state party money spent on Solorio, I am going to … well, it will have to be something legal, so I can’t think of anything to say here right now.

It looks like two groups — retirees and the Vietnamese GOTV machine — are hitting on all cylinders.  As for the rest: the main thing we know about negative campaigns is that they suppress turnout.  Normally, that is supposed to help Republicans — but by-mail voters are disproportionately Republican, and they seem to be suppressed this year.  So no one except for supporters of Janet Nguyen should be looking at these low ballot return figures and smiling.  Much more than usual remains up in the air.

A finer-grained analysis, as well as one requiring better historical data (which is no longer available on the OCROV site), may lead to different conclusions, of course.  Various people who sometimes correspond with me may have access to this data; they are welcome to chime in with comments or to contact me personally.  But what I see for now is: nastier than usual races are suppressing early turnout in cities and districts where they occur.


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)