Absentee voters can mean the difference between victory and defeat in close elections.  Is your campaign ready to run a strong absentee ballot program to help you win on Election Day?  In this article, we are presenting a complete absentee voter strategy for your campaign.

Before we begin, let’s answer some basic questions:

What is an absentee voter?  An absentee voter is any person who chooses to vote using an absentee (or mail-in) ballot.  State and local governments vary widely in their rules for who can vote absentee, and as a general rule most states restrict the use of absentee ballots to those voters who are either going to be out of the district (and thus unable to vote in person) on the day of the election, or who are unable to go to the polls because of advanced age or incapacity.

What is an absentee voter program?  An absentee voter program is a coordinated campaign effort that seeks to:

(1) identify those voters who are likely to support you and who often / usually vote absentee,

(2) identify other supporters who don’t vote or who don’t often vote, but who are eligible to vote absentee,

(3) get both groups to register to vote absentee, and (4) stay in touch with these voters to encourage and motivate them to vote for your candidate.

Generally there is a three step process for voting absentee:

(1) First, an eligible voter sends in an application to vote absentee, listing the reasons why they plan to vote absentee instead of going to the polls.  Your state likely has a standardized form for this application.

(2) Then, the state, county, or local board of election (BOE) looks at the application, and either disapproves it (unlikely) or approves it and mails an absentee ballot to the voter.

(3) Finally, the voter marks the absentee ballot with their votes and mails the ballot back in, and their vote is recorded.

**Remember: this is the general process, but the process in your state or area may vary, so find out by calling your local board of elections.

Depending on your state and district, you may or may not decide to run a targeted absentee ballot program in your election.  Your decision on whether to include an absentee component to your campaign strategy will depend on the following factors:

Number of Absentee Voters

Do lots of people vote absentee in your district?  Some states have very lax laws that encourage absentee voting, while other states are very strict and discourage it.  Find out how many people in your district generally vote absentee.  If the answer is, “a lot!” then you should be more inclined to invest time and money into this type of effort.

Ease of Collecting Data

What types of data are available from your local elections office?  Most states are able to provide you with voter file that includes a notation on what method a voter used to vote in each of the elections that they voted in: in-person or absentee.  This is the data you will use to decide which voters to contact as part of your absentee voter program.   If your state or locality doesn’t make this type of data available to your campaign, your job will be much, much harder.

Local Laws and Regulations

What type of absentee voter contact is allowed in your state / town / county / district?  Are you allowed to make absentee ballot applications out to voters along with (or attached to) campaign literature?  Are you allowed to collect absentee ballot applications and file them in bulk?  If your state prohibits activity like this, your job will be much harder and may not be worth the time and money to run a less then effective program.

Know the Rules

As mentioned above, find out what the law is in your district.  This cannot be stressed enough.  Every area is different, so know the law.  Find out what you can and cannot do when it comes to absentee ballots, which are a highly regulated legal topic.  Your state may or may not prohibit certain tactics which are discussed in this section, so find out first!

Your Absentee Voter Strategy

Ok, you’ve done your research, gathered your list, and decided to run an absentee voter program in your campaign.  Here’s the plan:

First: Communicate with voters who are likely to vote for your candidate and likely to vote absentee.

Go through your lists.  Determine which voters are likely to vote absentee this year.  How will you know?  Well, a basic rule of thumb in political targeting is: the best predictor of future action is past activity. If someone always (or usually) votes absentee, it is likely that they will vote absentee again this year.

Then, figure out which of these voters is likely to support your candidate, which is likely to support your opponent, and which are swing voters.  There are two ways to approach this task.

You could do it on the basis of party affiliation – assume that the voters who are in your party are going to vote for you, the voters who are in your opponent’s party are going to vote for your opponent, and that those registered as “independent” or “non-partisan” are the swing voters.  I don’t like this method because it assumes that independents really are independents, not people who are registered independent but always vote Republican or Democrat.  Likewise, it assumes there are no ticket-splitting conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans.  This method makes all of these assumptions based only on party affiliation, and not based on proof.

The second method for figuring out which voters are likely to vote for your candidate, for your opponent, or to be swing voters is based on where they live.  Using this method, you take your targeting data, which you compiled at the beginning of this book, where you labeled each precinct as part of your base, part of your opponent’s base, or as a swing precinct.  Remember, these calculations were based on proof – that is, you looked at how the precinct had voted in the past, and guessed how it will vote in this election based on how it voted in past elections.

Take your list of likely absentee voters, and next to each one, mark down what type of precinct they live in: your base, your lean, swing, your opponent’s lean, your opponent’s base (see the targeting section, above, if you need a refresher course on those terms).  Then, figure out which of these types you want to target with your absentee voter program.  While it would be nice to target all five, most campaigns don’t have enough money for that.  Which groups you choose to target depend on the targeting strategy decisions you made above, but generally, the pecking order is:

  1. Your lean
  2. Swing
  3. Opponent’s lean
  4. Your base
  5. Opponent’s base

Thus, most campaigns would target their own lean precincts first, then if they had the money, the swing precincts, then their opponent’s lean precincts… etc.  Take the list of likely absentee voters who live in the precincts you are targeting, and voila!  This is the basis of your absentee voter program.

Second, as you campaign, add supporters to the list who are eligible to vote absentee and who are unlikely to vote unless they do vote absentee.

Train your campaign volunteers and staff to be on the lookout for supporters who most likely won’t vote because they can’t get to the polls… for example, if you go door to door and the entire household supports you, and you notice that one of those supporters is an older senior citizen or a businessman who travels Monday through Friday every week (and thus is likely to be out of town on Election Day), then add these folks to your absentee voter program list, as they are prime prospects who both support you and are unlikely to vote unless they vote absentee.

Keep adding new prospects to your master absentee voter program list.

Third, get your absentee voter program list to apply for an absentee ballot. 

In many cases, you will be the only campaign targeting absentee voters in your district.

You’ll need to remind your supporters who are likely to vote absentee to register for an absentee ballot.  Sometimes, the process is quite cumbersome (it varies by state) so many campaigns will mail out a step-by-step instruction guide teaching their absentee voters how to apply for a ballot and how to mail the ballot back in.

Depending on the local laws and regulations, some campaigns go so far as to attach an application for an absentee ballot to a mailer that encourages people to fill it out and send it in, and then mails that mailer to their entire absentee list.  Other campaigns mail an absentee ballot application to their entire list of supporters, to make sure they don’t miss anyone.

Check your local laws to see if this is an option for your campaign.  Campaigns than are allowed to mail out the absentee ballot application as part of a mailer should consider doing so, as your absentee prospect list will be far more likely to fill it out if you send it to them, rather than them having to go find an application online or at the local post office or library.

Lastly, stay in touch with your absentee voter program list for the duration of the campaign.

Stay in touch with your absentee voter list!  Once someone gets placed on your absentee voter program master list, you should stay in touch with them to encourage them to vote for your candidate, remind them when the application deadlines are, make sure that they apply and that they vote, etc.  Remember, your opponent will most likely not be running an absentee voter program, so your absentee prospects will probably only be getting this information from you.  Keep in touch with them, include them in regular campaign communications like newsletters and direct mail, plus throw in a few “absentee voter only” mailings and reminders.

If you’d like to learn more about how to run a successful grassroots operation for your campaign, with step-by-step guides on topics like absentee voters, door-to-door campaigning, using volunteers, and more, check out our new book Winning Elections at the Grassroots.

Photo Credit: Nadya Peek