An unprecedented surge in absentee votes is contributing to an expected turnout of about 200,000 in Saturday’s Democratic caucuses.
For most Democrats, voting in Saturday’s precinct caucuses for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton requires showing up in person.
But about 35,000 have voted in advance, using what amounts to an absentee-ballot system. The deadline to send in the absentees was last Friday.
It’s an unprecedented surge in the use of so-called “surrogate affidavits” — forms by which Democrats attest they’re unable to attend a caucus due to work schedule, illness, disability, military service or religious observance.
In previous elections, only a few hundred affidavits were sent in, said Jaxon Ravens, chair of the state Democratic Party.
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“It was a bit of a surprise,” he said of this year’s flood.
In addition to the 35,000 absentee votes, about 72,000 people had preregistered for the caucuses as of Wednesday.
Given those early numbers, Ravens said “a comfortable estimate” is that the caucuses will draw about 200,000 voters total. That would be short of 2008’s record-setting Democratic caucuses, which drew 250,000 and saw then-Sen. Barack Obama defeat Clinton.
Ravens attributed this year’s higher absentee-voting rate to a more tech-savvy campaign world and the activism of the Sanders and Clinton campaigns, which each have worked to alert their supporters to the option.
“There are no rules that say they can’t do that,” he said.
In addition to emails, the Clinton camp sent a mailer to tens of thousands of voters, which included an appeal from former President Clinton along with affidavit forms and a postage-paid return envelope.
Stephanie Formas, Clinton’s Washington communications director, said the campaign “is fighting for the support of every caucusgoer and every delegate across the state,” and sharing Clinton’s plans to raise the minimum wage and protect women’s health care.
The Sanders campaign has had a strong organizing presence on college campuses and elsewhere, urging people to go to caucuses or to scan and email absentee forms. A campaign spokesman and its state director did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
The absentee votes will be placed in envelopes and delivered to each precinct caucus leader so they can be tallied along with the in-person votes Saturday.
Jamal Raad, a state Democratic Party spokesman, noted that this is the first election in which a conflicting work schedule is a valid reason to use the absentee option — another factor that likely broadened its use.
Of course, no one really knows whether absentee users really have valid conflicts due to a job, illness or other allowable reasons. It’s an honor system.
“Nobody is going to check; let’s be honest,” said veteran Democratic political consultant Dean Nielsen.
He said he received a notice from the Clinton campaign about the option and called it a smart tactic to get absentee votes banked.
Up for grabs in the caucuses are 101 delegates, a share of which will be awarded proportionally to Clinton and Sanders based on Saturday’s vote.
While Clinton has amassed a commanding national delegate lead, Sanders has widely been expected to win here.
“I am glad that there are so many people that are excited in participating,” he said.
State Republicans, meanwhile, will wait until the May 24 presidential primary to determine how to split their 44 delegates among New York real-estate mogul Donald Trump, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.