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Booker and Mail Voting Could be Golden Opportunity for Dems

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

He won’t be on the ballot in November, but if Cory Booker wins the US Senate nomination he could still boost turnout for vulnerable Democratic legislators in the regular general election. New Jersey’s automatic vote by mail provision provides the answer.

Tuesday was the deadline for mail ballot applications in the special primary election to fill the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Frank Lautenberg’s death. There have been some rumblings that county organizations would make a special effort on behalf of Newark Mayor Cory Booker to increase his vote-by-mail total.  That didn’t seem likely.  The local parties backed Booker precisely because they don’t have to put any resources into his race. Their war chests are needed to protect Democratic legislators in the face of a Chris Christie tsunami in November.

The data available on mail ballot applications for next week’s primary bear out that no effort has been made to sign up voters on Booker’s behalf.  However, there is one fascinating blip on the radar screen that points to how local Democrats can use Cory Booker’s senate run to their advantage.

Some background.  New Jersey has had universal vote-by-mail access since 2009.  That is to say anyone can vote by mail prior to Election Day without needing to provide a “valid” absentee excuse.  In addition to signing up for a specific election, the application also allows voters to select automatic mail ballots for every remaining election in the current calendar year and/or for every general election in ensuing years.

New Jersey voters haven’t really taken advantage of this option.  In the 2012 general election, 7.7% of votes cast were submitted by mail ballot.  This is only slightly higher than the 6.3% of ballots that were cast absentee in 2008, before the universal mail ballot law went into effect.

It also appears that the vote-by-mail option is more likely to be exercised by Republican leaning voters.  In New Jersey last year, the highest mail proportions of the vote were reported by Hunterdon (12.4%), Cape May (12.0%), Somerset (10.8%), Ocean (10.6%), and Gloucester (10.3%) counties.  Trailing in the vote-by-mail effort were Essex (5.1%) and Hudson (3.5%) counties.  In fact, fewer than 2% of the total ballots cast in the cities of Newark and Jersey City were submitted by mail.

Past experience shows that if a voter requests a mail ballot, there is a 9-in-10 chance it will be returned.  In other words, if Democrats sign up some of the unlikeliest voters (e.g. urban residents, younger adults) to vote by mail, they can increase turnout among their base. A big push on early voting was a major component to Pres. Obama’s success in swing states last year.

New Jersey Democrats haven’t caught on to that – except in one place – Camden County. Consider the fact that the Camden County clerk received 16,525 mail ballots in the high turnout 2012 presidential election. That translated to 7.3% of the total county vote, which was on par with the statewide average. Fast forward to today – Camden County has nearly 13,000 ballot requests for next week’s primary!  In an election which will see only a fraction of last November’s turnout!

These voters, though, did not come out of the woodwork for Cory Booker. Even before Sen. Lautenberg’s death and the announcement of the special election, Camden County had 12,159 voters signed up to receive ballots for every remaining election this year.

Nearly 4% of registered Camden County voters are already slated to receive mail ballots in both the October and November elections.  The next highest totals are Cape May County and Ocean County at just over 1% each.  No other county tops 1%.  [Note: analysis based on preliminary mail ballot data as of July 26 for 17 New Jersey counties.]

There will almost certainly be a skew in partisan turnout between the two fall elections (see the June Monmouth University Poll (June 13, 2013) for more detail on anticipated turnout).  Some Democratic voters may vote in the Senate election but stay home for an apparent losing gubernatorial effort in November.

This has some legislative Democratic incumbents worried.  And rightly so.

Take Gloucester County for example.  It is home to Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney, but the county will almost certainly produce a sizable gubernatorial majority for Republican Chris Christie.  Sweeney and his running mates will need to attract a lot of split-ticket voters or boost turnout among registered Democrats.

The Gloucester County clerk, though, has only received about 1,800 requests for mail ballots, with approximately 100 of them coming since the special election was announced.  Just over half (55%) of those ballots are being sent to Democratic voters while 37% are going to Republican voters.  That’s a tighter margin than in neighboring Camden County, where the ballot split is 57% Democrat and 21% Republican.  In fact, two-thirds of the Camden County mail voters who have signed up in just the past two months are registered Democrats.

By all accounts, the Booker campaign is generating a good deal of enthusiasm among young voters and urban voters. It doesn’t look like the county party organizations have taken advantage of that yet.  Even Camden County Democrats have yet to fully capitalize on the Booker effect.  Nearly 30% of their new mail voters have signed up only for next week’s primary. That means party operatives will have to go back to those voters to get them to re-up for the fall.

Cory Booker’s candidacy presents Democrats with a unique opportunity to offset Gov. Christie’s coattails in November.  That will only work, though, if they make an all-out effort to sign up mail voters before October.  And don’t forget to check the “all general elections” box on the application.