On election night, Bettendorf Mayor and Democratic candidate for Congress Ann Hutchinson declared that absentee ballots would determine the outcome of her race with Jim Nussle. It turned out she was wrong - Nussle won re-election with 57 percent of the vote, a margin of more than 28,000 ballots - but Hutchinson had good reason to make her statement. The Iowa Democratic party put a lot more resources this year into getting people to fill out absentee ballots, and the results were impressive - even in a race such as Hutchinson's, with its large margin of victory for her opponent.

In Scott County, Hutchinson got beat by 6,550 votes, but she outdrew Nussle among people who cast absentee ballots - 6,755 votes to 6,050. Hutchinson got 30 percent of her votes in the county from absentee ballots, while only 21 percent of Nussle supporters voted that way.

The pattern was repeated throughout Scott County, and the rest of the state. Democrats consistently got more absentee votes than Republicans, even when they lost their races by large margins. Of 13 selected head-to-head races in Scott County (including those for governor, Congress, the state legislature, and county offices), Democrats had more absentee ballots than Republicans in 10, even though the party only won six.

Absentee votes didn't make the difference in any local or statewide elections in Iowa this year, but Democrats proved that the state's liberal early-voting rules - allowing people to cast "no excuse" absentee ballots - can be an effective election tool. The lessons learned from the 2002 election in Iowa could loom large in future years, especially in elections in which turnout is traditionally low and victory is often measured in hundreds rather than thousands of votes.

"It's a phenomenal use of technology and shoe leather," said Mark Daley, communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party. "We had the largest coordinating campaign in Iowa history."

The state's election law allows people to cast absentee ballots without giving a reason. A registered voter needs to fill out and sign an application, and the county auditor's office mails a ballot to the voter. The citizen then fills out the ballot, inserts it in an "affidavit envelope," seals and signs that envelope, and puts it in a return-carrier envelope. The ballot needs to reach the county auditor's office by the time polls close on Election Day.

In its absentee-ballot campaign, Democrats targeted citizens who typically lean toward their party but generally don't vote except in presidential-election years. The push worked. State-senate candidate Dennis Starling and state-representative candidate Wayne Hean each lost by more than 1,000 votes in Scott County but held narrow leads over their Republican opponents in the absentee-vote category. Although Republicans won all three open seats on the Scott County board of supervisors, the three Democrats running for those seats each had at least 380 more absentee votes than the closest Republican.

We're not talking small numbers of votes. More than one in four votes cast in Scott County this year was absentee; in 2000, absentee ballots accounted for less than 18 percent of votes. Although turnout was higher in 2000, there were 4,000 more absentee ballots requested in Scott County in this election than in 2000, according to Scott County Auditor Karen Fitzsimmons.

Statewide this year, absentee-ballot requests by Democrats outnumbered those by Republicans 120,000 to 60,000, Daley said.

The two-to-one absentee-ballot margin didn't hold in Scott County, but Democrats still held a significant advantage, 6,786 to 5,016. (Interestingly, Republicans who requested absentee ballots returned them at a 96-percent clip, while only 87 percent of Democrats and 84 percent of people with no party affiliation returned theirs.)

Of 13,540 absentee ballots returned in Scott County, 5,891 came from registered Democrats, and 4,816 came from Republicans. That difference of 1,075 ballots nearly matches the 1,028-absentee-vote average advantage of Democrats over Republicans in the 13 selected head-to-head races in the county. This suggests that Democrats and Republicans split the absentee votes of people without party affiliation, and more importantly that absentee voters follow a predictable pattern in how they cast their ballots. (Absentee voters are also more likely to vote straight-ticket than people who show up at the polls on Election Day.)

At one point, Hean said, absentee-ballot requests in Scott County were running two-to-one in favor of Democrats. But late in the campaign, Republicans efforts began bearing fruit, and the GOP closed the margin significantly. "They got the numbers out," Hean said.

Absentee ballots were an integral part of Hean's campaign. The Democrat had estimated that he would need 750 more absentee votes than his opponent, Jamie Van Fossen, to win. As it turned out, had he achieved that margin, he still would have lost by nearly 1,000 votes.

That was because turnout exceeded the candidate's expectations. Hean said the absentee-ballot campaign would have been more effective with a lower turnout. Of course, the larger-than-expected turnout and continued Republican control of the Iowa legislature call into question the effectiveness of Democratic tactics compared to traditional get-out-the-vote efforts. (Daley said the party didn't scale back its traditional Election Day approach but augmented it with the absentee-ballot push.)

The absentee-ballot effort was a cornerstone of the Democratic strategy this year. "We launched our largest, most inclusive, and most technologically advanced effort to get out the vote," Daley said. "We really became a national model for what we've done."

The Democrats launched a pilot absentee-voter program in 2000, but this year's was four times larger, Daley said, as well as more advanced.

The process was pretty simple. Shortly after the June primary, 100 employees of the state Democratic party began knocking on doors with Palm Pilots in hand, gathering information to update the organization's voter database. Workers targeted Democrat-supporting voters who tend to not vote in off-year elections such as this year's - so-called "marginal voters" - and asked them to fill out applications for absentee ballots. The party delivered those applications to each county's auditor and, after the ballots were mailed, followed up with voters to make sure they received them and sent them back in. Field workers would also pick up completed ballots and turn them into the auditor if a voter requested it.

Absentee ballots were such an important part of the Democratic strategy that the front page of the state party's Web site had "Background on Iowa Voting Law" as its only topic, dealing with absentee voting.

The result, Daley estimated, is that between 30,000 and 40,000 Democratic-leaning voters statewide who didn't vote in the 1998 election cast absentee ballots this year. One expects that those votes were overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates.

The state Republican party put less effort into absentee ballots this year, and it showed. Joel Hannahs, spokesperson for the party, said the GOP put its energy and money more into direct mail and phone calls asking voters to cast absentee ballots. "Their door-to-door focus was a little more intense than ours," Hannahs said. But "we closed the gap in the final weeks."

Republicans raised some concerns about the Democratic process based on complaints from people who claimed they didn't request absentee ballots but received them in the mail anyway. But rather than fraud, "we found a lot of confusion," Hannahs said. "Most of the [county] auditors have expressed the opinion that they [voters] forgot."

"There was nothing," Daley said about complaints of Democratic tactics. "We had no problems with early ballots."

Fitzsimmons said voters called to complain to her office about two components of this year's absentee-ballot efforts. First, some people claimed they hadn't requested the ballots. (Fitzsimmons said that was because they typically requested absentee ballots early in the summer and had forgotten about it by the time they arrived in late September or October.) Second, some voters called about the numerous reminder phone calls they received from the political parties. ("The parties were very aggressive with the follow-up," Fitzsimmons said. But there was nothing illegal about multiple calls from a political party asking voters to complete their ballots and turn them in.)

Fraud is generally not an issue with absentee ballots. Voters who have requested an absentee ballot can still vote at the polls, but they either need to bring an uncompleted ballot or fill out a "challenged" ballot that's only counted if the absentee ballot wasn't turned in. In Scott County, the auditor's office also compares signatures on the ballot-request form and the affidavit envelope to prevent fraud. Only 132 absentee ballots were rejected in this past election because they didn't have signatures or for some other reason.

A larger issue is whether the legislature intended to make the absentee-ballot process a political opportunity for the parties when it tried to make voting more convenient for voters. Although the Republican party has not taken a position on the issue, "I know there's some discomfort with the process," Hannahs said.

But Daley dismissed any complaints about the early-voting. "There is no argument against it," Daley said.

That's not true. Curtis Gans, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, said that flexible voting options have not boosted voter turnout as proponents claimed they would. "The basic effect ... has been negative," he said. States without liberal absentee rules or early voting tend to perform better in terms of turnout on Election Day. When turnout jumps, it goes up more in states without these "voter friendly" measures, and when voter turnout drops, the decline isn't so steep.

Gans said there are two reasons for this. The first is that voter-friendly rules "diffuse mobilization from one day and spread it" over a greater period of time. He also argues that people who vote early would probably vote anyway.

Yet what Gans doesn't allow for is concerted efforts to use absentee voting for people who wouldn't normally vote. And those are the people that the Iowa Democratic Party identified this year, and will likely continue to target in future elections.

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