Ohio a battleground for early-voting fight

Rules make it convenient for Ohioans to vote, but turnout mostly unaffected.

The two major political parties in Ohio have long been engaged in a battle over early voting: when it should start, which hours should be kept by county boards of election, and whether citizens should be able to register and vote on the same day.

The arguments boil down to this: Democrats accuse Republicans of attempting to suppress turnout by eliminating practices such as “Golden Week” — when people can both register to vote and cast a ballot at the same time — while Republicans say the state already has one of the most generous early-voting periods in the nation and makes voting convenient by mailing absentee ballots to every registered voter.

But while the two sides continue their legal sparring over the issue, it’s worth asking: Does early voting increase turnout?

The answer is yes — and no. Research on the impact of such measures on early voting is mixed, with some studies indicating early-voting periods provide a modest bump to turnout while others argue that it actually can hurt turnout.

Experts say while Ohio’s rules are generous — including “no-fault absentee voting, which lets people vote absentee without stating a reason for doing so — those measures probably do less to drive up turnout than Golden Week did. That’s because Golden Week gave first-time voters both an incentive to vote and the convenience to do it all at once.

“It’s one-stop shopping,” said Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “You’re allowing a person who’s not registered to become registered or update their registration and cast a ballot right then.”

Burden’s research has indicated that early voting in and of itself doesn’t really help turnout – in fact, it might actually depress it in some cases.

“It essentially steals the power of the traditional election day to mobilize people who otherwise wouldn’t vote,” he said. “When you’re concentrating on a single day in November, that firepower of attention, and media coverage and campaign activity and neighbors and coworkers talking about the election is a stimulus to turn non-voters into voters.”

He said some campaigns have pulled out of states before election day if they’ve determined many votes have already been cast. In other cases, having the option to vote many days before the election removes the urgency of a traditional election day mobilization, he said.

Convenience applauded

Ohio moved to make its absentee and early voting easier in 2005, when the state began permitting no-fault absentee voting. At the time, the idea was that the practice might increase turnout in the state. It was also hoped to reduce the lengthy lines that voters faced when they went to the polls in 2004.

The popularity of early voting is undeniable, at least in Ohio. In 2012, voters cast a record 1.8 million ballots early — roughly a third of the total votes cast.

According to a 2010 study by the Ray C. Bliss Institute at the University of Akron, those in central and northeast Ohio were more likely to vote early in 2010, and 64 percent of those polled reported voting early because of convenience.

But there is little evidence that early voting in Ohio has had a huge impact on overall voting patterns.

In the 2012 presidential election voter turnout was about 71 percent. In 2004, before early voting went into full swing, it was nearly 72 percent.

A similar pattern occurred in off-year elections. In 2002, nearly 48 percent turned out when Republican incumbent Bob Taft easily defeated Democrat Tim Hagan. The governor’s race in 2010, pitting Republican John Kasich against incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland, was much closer. Yet turnout was 49 percent, hardly a huge bump over the blowout race eight years earlier.

Turnout probably is driven more by the race itself than the time period when voters can cast their ballot. Take 2014. Turnout was only about 41 percent, but that year’s banner race between Kasich and Democrat Ed FitzGerald was hardly a barn burner, with FitzGerald persistently embattled by personal scandal and never able to make much of a dent in the polls.

Mobilizing voters

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, most states have some sort of method that allows eligible voters to cast ballots before election day. Early voting is not available in 13 states; in those states, voters must also need a valid excuse to request an absentee ballot.

But in the 37 states that allow early voting, any qualified voter can cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to election day, with no excuse required.

Jan Leighley, a professor in the Department of Government at American University, said early-voting initiatives add convenience for voters but also convenience for campaigns, allowing them to mobilize all the committed voters to vote early so they can focus their resources elsewhere.

“We know that any individual, if they’re contacted by a party, is more likely to vote than if they aren’t contacted by them,” she said. Such rationale has particularly helped Democrats in recent years, as they’ve built up infrastructure aimed at mobilizing voters.

She said her research indicates that overall, states with no-fault absentee voting see a 2- to 3-percent increase in turnout. States that have an extraordinary early voting period of 45 days or more can see as much as a 3-percent bump, she said.

“In early voting, the longer the period, the more additional votes you might have,” Leighley said.

Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, said battleground states such as Ohio are the ones most likely to see a positive impact from early-voting provisions. In those states, political campaigns are able to mobilize not only for election day but for the period before then.

Texas — typically easily won by Republicans — is a case in point. It has one of the lowest turnouts in the country even though voters there can cast their votes early.

McDonald attributes the low turnout to the lack of presidential campaign activity there.

“What’s happening in Texas is not what’s happening in Ohio,” he said.

Ongoing battle

The legal fight in Ohio isn’t over, though it’s unclear whether the rules will change again before no-fault absentee and early voting is set to begin on Oct. 12.

A federal court in May ruled that Republicans overstepped when they eliminated Golden Week, but a federal appeals court on Aug. 23 overturned that decision. Democrats, arguing that the ruling makes it more difficult for poor Ohioans to engage in the political process, have now appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Burden said those that do take advantage of early-voting initiatives tend to be the ones with the strongest opinions — die-hard Democrats or Republicans, the very ideologically-minded, or those motivated to get involved because of what is on the ballot.

Early voting “is a nice convenience,” he said. “But it doesn’t do a lot to bring out new voters.”

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