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Regular Voters Are Casting Ballots Already. Progressive Groups Are Eyeing Who’s Left

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Joy Okochi drops her mail-in ballot into a US Postal Service mailbox in San Francisco on Oct. 8, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

With less two weeks left before Election Day, nearly 4 million Californians have already voted — and groups on the left, who are committed to expanding the electorate by bringing in more people of color and younger voters, are hoping 2020 will be a banner year.

So far, experts say, it looks like those turning in ballots early are people who would have voted in the past anyway.

But there’s a silver lining for those hoping to expand the electorate: Those early votes from high propensity voters mean campaigns now have more time to focus on motivating lower propensity voters in the final days of this election. And some grassroots groups say that’s exactly the playbook they are following.

In Los Angeles County, for example, the independent expenditure group L.A. Voice Action is supporting progressive candidates in the contentious district attorney’s race and one of the county supervisor’s races. This year, L.A. Voice Action is targeting 50,000 voters in Los Angeles County with a fundamental change in strategy from how campaigns have traditionally operated.

The difference? They aren’t just calling voters who have voted in the past — they’re also reaching out to people they hope will vote for the first time.

“I've worked on many campaigns,” said Tina McKinnor, the group’s director of civic engagement. Traditionally, she said, those campaigns “call the folks that voted in the last three to five elections because, you know, marketing. If you go by marketing, those are the people who vote. So that's where you put your money.”

Instead, her group — which is funded by the statewide California Donor Table — is making a point this year to reach out to people who didn’t vote in years past, and to have people who live in those communities do that outreach. She’s hoping it will be a “gamechanger.”

“We've hired about 100 phone bankers,” McKinnor said. “Most of these phone bankers are previously incarcerated folks. These are some of the best phone bankers that I've ever worked with because they're passionate.”

McKinnor, a former legislative staffer who has worked on state and national races, said the effort seems to be working.

That type of targeting could make a big difference, agreed Paul Mitchell, vice president of the voter data company Political Data Inc., which works with both Republicans and Democrats.

But based on who’s turned in their ballots so far, the electorate doesn’t look that different than it has in years past, he said.

“We're seeing a lot of the same people that we expected to vote just vote earlier. It's still an open question as to whether or not these unlikely voters are going to make it to the polls,” he said, noting that seniors are outpacing other age groups in early ballots returns, and that Latino voters are underrepresented among those who have already voted.

But, Mitchell said, this early voting provides groups like L.A. Voice Action a real opportunity to “cost-effectively turn out their voters,” by using targeted messaging to communicate with less likely voters in the final days through means such as text messages and digital ads — and ignore those who have already cast their ballots.

“It essentially takes a bunch of voters off of the playing field and allows them to focus more intently on those voters who might be lower turnout,” he said. “Any campaign would want to have those votes in the bank so that ... your resources can be used a lot more effectively.”

Groups like L.A. Voice Action and others funded by the California Donor Table need to carefully target voters, because they’re not only focusing on races between Republicans and Democrats.

Local races, for example, are often nonpartisan, said Ludovic Blain, executive director of California Donor Table, while California’s top-two voting system can pit candidates of the same party against one another in the general election.

“It's very hard to be an informed voter in California,” he said, “unlike in other places where you might be able to use identity and party ID as a shorthand for who is the most progressive candidate.”

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That means his group — which aims to improve communities of color by getting progressives elected — isn’t just interested in electing Democrats or people of color candidates. In Los Angeles, for example, they have put $2.25 million into supporting George Gascon, who is Cuban American, against current District Attorney Jackie Lacey — a Black, female Democrat. And they’ve put $1.3 million behind state Sen. Holly Mitchell, who’s running against a fellow Black Democrat, former City Councilman Herb Wesson, in a race for county supervisor.

Los Angeles County voter Wanza Tolliver is supporting Gascon in the D.A. race, and already sent in her ballot. The head of the Lawndale Democratic Club and a small business owner, Tolliver said she is hoping to have more conversations with friends and neighbors in these final weeks to encourage them to vote.

“I just keep asking, ‘Hey, do you need help? How can I help you?’” she said. “I want to make sure that they're getting their ballot out and that they’re voting. It’s important.”

Mitchell, the voter data expert, said he does expect California to break records this year. He noted that 85% of eligible voters are now registered — the highest percentage in a century — and predicted that turnout could reach as high as 78% among those registered voters. In contrast, turnout was 75% among registered voters in California in 2016.

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But, he said, campaigns on both sides of the aisle will have to work hard in these final days to make sure their voters are the ones coming out, because so far, Democrats have been outpacing Republicans in ballots returned. That’s a change from years past, he said, when GOP voters were more likely to vote by mail, and send in their ballots early.

“It probably is due to the fact that there's this polarization in how people want to vote based on if they’re Team Red or Team Blue,” he said, noting that Democrats have been pushing their base to vote by mail and do so early, while President Trump has appealed to Republicans to vote in person and cast unsubstantiated doubt on the security of voting by mail.

So don’t be surprised, Mitchell said, if Democrats ballot advantage shrinks as Election Day draws nearer.

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