JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Like fishing in a stocked pond instead of an ocean, politicians are trying to catch votes by targeting phone calls and fliers at voters who have already applied for absentee ballots.
Under laws well known to political strategists but perhaps not to the public, candidates in some states can ask local election officials for lists of people who have requested absentee ballots — and then campaign directly to them.
The tactic could make a critical difference in this tight election year, especially given the fact that absentee voters are highly likely to cast their ballots. The strategy is playing out in several swing states that could decide the presidential election, including Ohio and Missouri.
"It's Campaign Handbook 101," said elections expert Richard Smolka, a retired political science professor from American University. But "if anything, I think it's probably increased as the number of absentee ballots has been increasing."
In Missouri, the practice has come under fire by Democrats upset by a renewed Republican effort to contact absentee voters.
Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt — the chief election official and the GOP candidate for governor — sent a campaign letter to county clerks asking them to provide the names of absentee ballot applicants to the state Republican Party.
The state party has been calling those absentee voters with a pitch for President Bush, Blunt and the rest of its candidates.
"It's part of our overall strategy of get out the vote," said state Republican Party spokesman Paul Sloca, who declined to say how many absentee voters had been called.
But the Missouri Democratic Party compares it to the illegal practice of campaigning inside a polling place on Election Day.
"They're not allowing absentee voters to cast their votes in private," said Missouri Democratic Party spokesman Jack Cardetti. "They are, in essence, invading the polling places."
Missouri's Democratic and Republican candidates for secretary of state each have proposed to end the campaign practice by closing absentee voter lists statewide.
Yet while the Missouri Democratic Party complains, its counterpart in Ohio is daily gathering absentee voter applications from all 88 counties so its candidates can send campaign materials to Democratic or independent voters.
"Having a (campaign) piece go out to absentees when they apply is fairly effective," said Ohio Democratic Party spokesman Dan Trevas. But he added that "you have to do it right way" — before they can cast the ballot.
The Ohio Republican Party is doing almost exactly the same thing.
"The goal is to find out who is requesting an absentee ballot and, hopefully, get them some information that may be helpful in nudging them toward voting for Republicans," said Ohio GOP spokesman Jason Mauk.
Getting absentee voter lists is relatively easy in states such as Ohio and Illinois, where the records are open to the public. JoAnn Thomas, the county clerk in Peoria, Ill., keeps an updated list on an office counter where "anyone can come in and look at it at anytime." Many people do, she said.
In other states, however, getting the lists can be more difficult or less productive.
Pennsylvania law does not require local election officials to release absentee voter lists until Oct. 26 — just three days before absentee ballots are due for state elections.
"It's kind of futile to wait until then. That's one of the reasons we don't do it," said Don Morabito, executive director of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.
But Morabito also doubts the conventional wisdom that absentee voters make good targets.
"People who go to the trouble of requesting absentee ballots clearly want to vote," Morabito said. But "to me, that means they've made up their minds. So I don't think it's that productive to mail stuff to them."