Is Ohio headed for its lowest turnout in a governor's election in decades?

Oct 12, 2014

Early last Tuesday morning – the first day of early in-person voting at Ohio’s boards of elections – we stopped by the Hamilton County Board of Elections downtown fully expecting to see a line of voters eager to cast the first ballots in the 2014 election.

In past years – particularly gubernatorial and presidential elections – there have been long lines outside the board’s offices on Broadway, sometimes stretching around the block. Sometimes, people would camp out overnight on the sidewalk to be first in line.

Not this time.

At 8 a.m., when voting began, there were exactly four voters who went upstairs to cast their ballots – one of them a Democratic candidate.

No line, no waiting.

Is this the harbinger of a low turnout election, even lower than most elections in a year when Ohio chooses a governor?

Possibly so.  The Democratic candidate for governor, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, with his bad headlines, poor poll numbers and lack of campaign cash, appears to be headed toward defeat at the hands of Republican incumbent John Kasich. And Democratic Party leaders fear that will slow down their usually reliable get-out-the-vote machine.

And Republican Party leaders fear that the lack of a closely contested race at the top of the ticket might make many Republican-leaning voters lose interest, assuming this is a GOP year. They just may stay home.

“A fairly low turnout would be my prediction, given the circumstances,’’ said Mack Mariani, associate professor of political science at Xavier University. “The Democrats have a problem at the top of the ticket. It’s not that Republicans aren’t enthusiastic about Kasich, but the lack of a real hot contest might keep turnout down.”

It’s not surprising that gubernatorial elections – which also include elections for all the other statewide constitutional offices – have lower turnout than presidential elections.

Four years ago, the statewide turnout in the gubernatorial election was 49 percent. That was the election in which Kasich ended up defeating incumbent Democrat Ted Strickland by two percentage points statewide.

The presidential race two years later, where President Obama won Ohio over Republican Mitt Romney, had a turnout of 70.5 percent. Hamilton County’s turnout was somewhat better in 2010 – 51 percent. In 2012, the Hamilton County turnout was nearly 75 percent, with Obama winning the county for the second time, the first Democratic presidential candidate to win back-to-back races in the county.

In Hamilton County, one of the key urban counties in the state, the early in-person voting numbers at the board of elections during the first three days has been down 43 percent compared to the numbers during the first three days in the 2010 election.  Through Thursday, requests for absentee ballots have been down in Hamilton County too, compared to 2010 – a 17 percent decrease overall. Ballot requests from Democrats are down 14 percent, while Republicans are down 23 percent.

Both parties in Ohio have been fighting tooth-and-nail to drive up turnout, either by early voting or election day voting.  These days, GOTV (Get Out The Vote) operations are the key to winning elections.

Kasich, FitzGerald and their running mates are crisscrossing the state for GOTV rallies and will keep it up until election day.

Both political parties have created web pages designed to help voters with the information they need to vote early or on election day; and they are asking supporters around the state to spread the word about the web pages on social media.

The Ohio Republican Party’s page is ohiogop.org/electionhq, while the Ohio Democratic Party’s is ohiodems.org/electioncenter. The Democratic web page puts more emphasis on early in-person voting at boards of elections, which, in past elections, has been heavily Democratic. The GOP page emphasizes absentee balloting, which tends to favor Republicans.

In Hamilton County, the chairmen of both political parties are concerned about turnout for this election.

Tim Burke, the chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party, said the issue of FitzGerald not having a permanent driver’s license for 10 years  in particular “has hurt us at the top of the ticket.”

“But we have to keep pushing,’’ Burke said. “We have a lot of good candidates on the county ballot and some very good chances to win some races, but we have to push our people to vote, either early or election day.”

Burke’s counter-part in the Hamilton County Republican Party, Alex Triantafilou, said he thinks turnout will be down “across the board” and knows that GOP voters could become complacent too.

“Yes, I’m concerned,’’ Triantafilou said. “I’m always concerned in a county that is changing, and not changing in favor of Republicans.”

Triantafilou said the party will spend “in the five-figure range” to hit 75,000 Republican-leaning households with phone calls and mail pieces. There has already been a robo-call to those households from Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann, Triantafilou said.

And, he said, the local party will be working with the state party on election day “flushing” – the practice of having party volunteers go to polling places, make note of who has already voted and crossing them off the list of potential GOP voters. It’s done so they aren’t wasting time on election day calling or knocking on the doors of people who have already voted.

Burke said the Ohio Democratic Party is doing a massive mail program that is “county specific” – meaning that the mail pieces going to each individual county will include that county’s slate of Democratic candidates, including the judicial candidates, who have no party designations next to their names on the ballot.

The local party, Burke said, will cover as many Democratic precincts as possible with workers handing out Democratic slate cards, help candidates organize door-to-door campaigning in Democratic neighborhoods and mailings on the Democratic slate, with special emphasis on the judicial candidates.

There will be monumental efforts between now and election day by candidates, political parties and groups interested in the outcome of this election to gin up interest among Ohio voters.

But we could be looking at one of the lowest turnouts in an Ohio gubernatorial year in decades.