Election officials gear up for early voting-Produced by Lynn Hulsey

Ohio expected to set early voting record

Trump, Clinton and local campaigns are preparing to lock your vote in early.

Election Day is nearly a month away, but more than 1.8 million Ohioans are expected to vote early and the fight for their votes starts this week.

The increasing popularity of early voting — which begins at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 12 — has candidate campaigns strengthening their get-out-the vote operations earlier, gives elections officials some relief on Election Day, and makes voting more convenient for citizens.

In 2012 about a third of Ohio’s 5.6 million voters cast absentee ballots in person or by mail.

This year that number is expected to grow.

In fact, the campaign for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton estimates that 40 percent of voters in battleground states, including Ohio, will vote early.

“With more than 40 percent of the electorate in key states likely to vote before November 8, the next few weeks will have nearly as much impact on the outcome of this election as Election Day itself,” said Harrell Kirstein, Ohio campaign communications director.

Republican nominee Donald Trump will return to Ohio Thursday — the day after early voting starts — for a rally that could be one of his biggest ever in the state. The event will be at U.S. Bank Arena in downtown Cincinnati.

The positives and negatives of early voting

“A lot of people work and can’t afford to wait in line (on Election Day),” said Jason Baker, director of the Clark County Board of Elections.

But with 27 days to vote before Election Day, early voting also leaves the voters vulnerable to buyer’s remorse if their candidates wind up in some kind of big trouble — the venerable October surprise — that might have changed their vote.

“My argument against early voting is you don’t have as much information as people do later,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of Cedarville University’s Center for Political Studies. “And sometimes what you find out does matter.”

Many people vote early for the traditional reason — they’ll be unavailable on Election Day. Others cast absentee ballots by mail or in-person at the board of elections because they want to make sure they don’t miss voting due to something unexpected happening on Election Day. Some like getting voting out of the way or they want to avoid Election Day lines at the polls.

In fact, the issue of long lines was behind the 2005 Ohio law change that allows anyone to vote early without giving a reason, such as illness or being out of state.

Legislators acted after Ohio’s problem-plagued 2004 presidential election between George W. Bush and John Kerry, a national embarrassment in part because of long lines that led people to simply give up and go home without voting.

University of Dayton student Shania Hurst is voting for the first time this year and she’s going to make it a father-daughter trip to the Butler County Board of Elections, where the two of them will cast their ballots before Election Day.

“He likes to skip the lines,” said Hurst, a 21-year-old who lives at UD but is from Fairfield.

Early voting gaining popularity

As of this week 957,260 Ohioans have requested absentee ballots, up from 922,199 at this point in the 2012 presidential election, said Josh Eck, press secretary for Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted.

That year a record 1.87 million absentee votes were cast by mail or in person — one third of all Ohio votes — and elections officials believe the state is on track in this highly contentious presidential election to beat that number this year.

“There’s a couple of things driving it. People are more familiar with absentee voting, they’re more trusting of it and it’s easier for people to vote from their kitchen table,” said Jan Kelly, director of the Montgomery County Board of Elections. “(In person voters) come for the camaraderie, the convenience, the free parking.”

Every two years for gubernatorial and presidential elections since 2012 Husted has mailed absentee applications to all registered voters in the state at a cost of more than $1 million in taxpayer money each year. A second round of ballot applications will go out for those who registered to vote after this year’s Labor Day mailing, and Husted’s office this year for the first time contacted 1.6 million Ohioans who are eligible to vote but not registered, urging them to register.

Voter registration ends Tuesday, Oct. 11.

About 13 percent — nearly 121,000 — of the absentee applications submitted statewide as of this week have come from nine local counties: Butler, Champaign, Clark, Darke, Greene, Miami, Montgomery, Preble and Warren, according to an analysis of state statistics.

Traditionally absentee by mail voting has been dominated by Republicans and in-person voting seems to attract more Democrats, said Aaron Ockerman, executive director of the Ohio Association of Elections Officials. Statewide breakouts of absentee applications by party affiliation are not available, but Kelly said about a third of those received in Montgomery County so far come from Republicans and 20 percent from Democrats. The largest number — 45 percent — come from people who did not declare a party in primary elections.

Oddly, making voting more convenient has not not increased participation, Ockerman said.

“The overall numbers have not increased since 2000,” Ockerman said. “We see a difference in the way people vote but not how many people vote.”

Ground game

The growing popularity of early voting gives candidate campaigns a chance to nail down voters before Election Day.

“Early voting to me says more about your ground game than Election Day does,” said Lee Hannah, Wright State University assistant professor of political science. “It is both an opportunity and a burden for campaigns to have a clear, coherent strategy and mobilization apparatus a full two months out.”

Campaigns will rely heavily on data analytics to target voters and get them to vote early for their candidate, said Dale Butland, a longtime aide to former Ohio Sen. John Glenn.

“The idea is to get every base voter out to the polls,” said Butland, who most recently worked on the U.S. Senate Democratic primary campaign of Cincinnati Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.

Officials for the campaigns of Trump and Clinton, along with U.S. Senator Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and his Democratic challenger Ted Strickland, former Ohio governor, all said getting people to vote early is a critical part of their efforts. They also said they use data analytics to assist in targeting potential voters.

“Our campaign has a sophisticated effort to encourage high-propensity and newly registered absentee voters to request and cast absentee ballots, and to vote early, because that lets us focus our get-out-the-vote resources on others,” said Bob Paduchik, Ohio state director for Trump’s campaign.

Kirstein said the Clinton campaign’s voter registration drive meshes with efforts to get people to vote early.

“(We) made the decision to invest early in Ohio to communicate our message, change the electorate and turn our people out to vote,” Kirstein said. “A strong get out the vote effort is key to winning Ohio, a state where every vote matters and the race is always competitive.”

Portman’s campaign manager Corry Bliss said the campaign has identified 35,000 Portman supporters in Montgomery County who will get absentee ballots from the campaign.

“Every time we’ve knocked on a door or made a phone call we’ve asked everyone inclined to support Rob Portman if they plan to vote early,” Bliss said.

The Strickland campaign coordinated with the Ohio Democratic Party, on a “synchronized and powerful early vote program,” said spokesman David Bergstein.

“Democrats in Ohio understand the impact that maximizing early voter turnout can have and we’re doing everything possible to ensure that we encourage people to take advantage of the opportunity to vote early,” he said.

Local groups are doing the same. Tom Roberts, political action chairman of the NAACP Dayton unit, said the NAACP is working with leaders of sororities, fraternities and churches encouraging them to vote in groups, including the “Souls to the Polls” efforts where predominantly black churches bus people to vote after church on the two Sundays prior to Election Day when boards of election have extended hours for early voters.

Roberts said people enjoy making voting something of an occasion, getting dressed up and going to vote with a group of friends.

“I think it’s more of a social event,” he said “You want to show up to vote.”

‘Everybody likes to be first’

Some people may prefer early voting out of fear that a mailed ballot might get lost in the mail or be rejected by the board of elections because of mistakes, especially in the wake of last month’s federal court decision - now on appeal - that allows absentee ballots to be thrown out due to technical errors such as a voter signing a name where it is supposed to be printed.

In-person voting in Montgomery County used to involve voting on paper, but this year for the first time in a General Election the county is using electronic touch screen machines.

Using the voting equipment for in-person absentee voting, which Ockerman said is increasingly popular across the state, eliminates the chance of a voter making an error on the ballot and it should reduce the wait for people who do choose to vote early.

Ninety voting machines are set up in newly renovated space that will allow up to 800 people to vote per hour in Montgomery County.

“We are prepared for whatever we get,” Kelly said. “I think we are going to have a pretty good turnout. Everybody likes to be first.”

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