A referendum drive that halted a controversial election law may have turned the tide in a Phoenix City Council race where early ballot collection played a major role.
Paul Bentz, a consultant for District 4 candidate Justin Johnson, said early ballot collection may have led to a come-from-behind win for Laura Pastor. Polling by the Johnson campaign and outside groups showed Johnson in the lead for much of the race, but Pastor won by 1,140 votes.
Bentz said several west Phoenix precincts saw massive increases in voter turnout between the Aug. 27 primary and Nov. 5 runoff elections, which he attributed in large part to early ballot collection by pro-Pastor forces.
“In the end, it came down to ballot collection,” Bentz, of the consulting firm HighGround, wrote in a blog post on the company’s website. “As we have seen more and more in close election contests, the daily grind of strategic ballot collection (particularly in low-efficacy partisan targeted areas) can spell the difference between a win and a loss.”
Early ballot collection is a staple of get-out-the-vote efforts by progressive and Latino groups, which register first-time voters, sign them up for the Permanent Early Voting List and collect their ballots to return to election officials. Collection efforts typically focus on low-efficacy voters who predominantly favor Democrats.
HB2305, an omnibus election law bill passed by the Legislature during the 2013 session, would have banned such ballot collection efforts. But a referendum drive led by the Protect Your Right to Vote Committee collected enough signatures to refer it to the ballot, which means the law is on hold until the November 2014 election, when voters will decide whether to put it on the books.
Bentz said the Johnson campaign collected a small amount of early ballots, but most focused more on other get-out-the-vote efforts, such as persuading higher-efficacy voters to turn in their early ballots themselves. In addition to Democrats, the campaign spent a lot of time reaching out to elderly voters, independents and Republicans, he said.
“But in those three realms, the older folks especially were leery about someone collecting their ballot. We were just trying to turn out supporters. It was less about the ballot in the hand than about getting these people to turn out,” Bentz said.
Biggest jumps in turnout
Bentz said the Johnson campaign primarily targeted the portion of the district that lies east of Interstate 17, which was home to 66 percent of the primary electorate, while Pastor and her allies focused on the area west of the freeway, where the biggest jumps in voter turnout occurred.
According to Bentz’s analysis, in four of the precincts in the western part of the district, voter turnout increased between 142 percent and 167 percent. In one district, turnout increased by an astonishing 311 percent. The runoff election saw 3,636 more voters cast ballots in District 4 than in the primary election.
Bill Scheel, a consultant for Pastor, said the campaign did not spend much time collecting early ballots either. The Pastor campaign only collected early ballots during the last weekend of the campaign, after the deadline for mailing in early ballots had passed, and collected less than 100, he said.
But Good Jobs Phoenix, an independent expenditure committee that backed Pastor, did put a lot of effort in early ballot collection. Brendan Walsh, of the labor group Unite Here, which was a key partner in Good Jobs Phoenix, said his organization collected 998 early ballots. It’s difficult to ascertain whether other groups were collecting ballots as well.
Walsh said Good Jobs Phoenix and Unite Here engaged in a number of get-out-the-vote efforts. But early ballot collection was a critical part, and may have been the turning point in the race.
“I hate to say that we wouldn’t have won anyway. But it certainly would have been a different kind of scenario,” Walsh said.
Meanwhile, pro-Johnson independent expenditures didn’t appear to match those efforts. Putting Phoenix First, the biggest pro-Johnson IE, didn’t engage in early ballot collecting, according to Kory Langhofer, an attorney who represents the committee.
Impact of progressives
The importance of early ballot collection to Pastor’s campaign provides a perfect example of why the defeat of HB2305 is so important to Democrats. Walsh said voter-registration and ballot-collection efforts were triggered by Arizona’s 2010 passage of SB1070, a strict illegal immigration law that galvanized Latino and progressive groups.
Though the District 4 runoff was a nonpartisan race between two Democrats, progressives lined up behind Pastor and were largely hostile to Johnson, who ran from the center and struck an independent tone in his campaign.
“I’ve been involved in several city council elections, and the effort … in District 4 was in general I’d say the most comprehensive in terms of progressives getting together to try to figure out how to move a candidate over the top,” Walsh said.
Opponents of HB2305 accuse Republicans of passing the bill to suppress Democratic votes. Robbie Sherwood, a spokesman for the Protect Your Right to Vote Committee, said the people who are generally targeted in ballot collection drives are younger, heavily Latino and generally new to the political process.
“The people in that universe skew heavily to the Democratic side,” Sherwood said. “So if a wet blanket is put on those efforts to get those voters out, it’s going to impact a Democratic more severely than others.”
Sherwood said the District 4 race is an opportunity to make the public aware of the “real and very negative” consequences of HB2305.
Supporters of the legislation, however, say the law is about preventing voter fraud and making it easier for election officials to count votes. Republican lawmakers expressed concern that random people can collect hundreds or thousands of ballots with absolutely no oversight or guarantees that they actually turn in those early ballots. Some election officials complained that organizations collect massive numbers of ballots, hold onto them until Election Day and drop them off en masse at polling places, which prolongs the vote counting.
Bentz said he doesn’t believe the Johnson campaign erred by not focusing on early ballots. Such collection efforts are labor intensive, and the campaign’s resources were better spent elsewhere, he said.
But future campaigns should pay heed to the impact that early ballot collection had on the District 4 race, Bentz said. Campaigns will be able to collect early ballots at least through the 2014 election cycle, and well into the future if voters reject HB2305.
“I’m not saying ballot collection is a good or bad thing. But the fact of the matter is … ballot collection can make the difference. And in this race, it definitely did,” Bentz told the Arizona Capitol Times. “As long as ballot collecting is legal, everybody needs to make sure that’s part of your campaign plan.”
Bentz’s HighGround blog: http://www.azhighground.com/reflecting-on-the-district-4-council-race/