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Is Cincinnati headed for the lowest turnout ever?


Yes, Cincinnati has a costly and contentious mayor’s race going on.

Yes, there is a mob of 21 candidates scrambling to win one of nine seats on city council. And, yes, there are plenty of controversial issues, from the streetcar to the parking lease to the city’s woeful pension system, for the candidates to argue about.

And yet, the truth is, there are clear indications that Nov. 5 will see the lowest turnout election in Cincinnati in many a decade. Maybe ever.

And what is the particular tea leaf we can read that would lead us to this conclusion?

The paltry number of absentee ballot requests received so far by the Hamilton County Board of Elections. Paltry, that is, as compared to recent elections in odd-numbered, local election years.

Look at the numbers:

As of Friday, the Hamilton County Board of Elections had processed 3,173 absentee ballot applications in the city of Cincinnati; and only 6,995 countywide.

That was 26 days before the election.

At the same point two years ago, the board had processed 8,964 absentee ballot requests in the city and 26,360 in the whole county.

Two years before that, in 2009, the board had 12,601 requests in the city and 42,667 in the county as a whole.

Yes, paltry is the word to describe it.

We just went through a Cincinnati mayor primary on Sept. 10 where only 5.68 percent of the city’s voters bothered to show up at the polls. That was almost understandable – everyone with a lick of sense knew from the start that, of the four candidates on the ballot, Democrats Roxanne Qualls and John Cranley, would emerge as the two top vote-getters, with the other two as distant also-rans.

And that is exactly what happened – Cranley took 56 percent of the vote; Qualls had 37 percent.

OK, so the two Bigfoot candidates wiped out the Lilliputians.

The main event would bring out the voters, right?

Well, maybe not.

What’s going on here? It depends on who you ask.

First of all, Cincinnati city elections are generally not high turnout affairs in recent years – 74,727 Cincinnati voters turned out two years ago, which represented 37.7 percent of the electorate. In 2009, 74,676 voted in the city, for a turnout of 33 percent. It’s not like the old days – in 1977, just a shade under 70 percent of city voters turned out.

This year, there are those in Cincinnati political circles who are anticipating – based mainly on the weak absentee ballot requests – that only 50,000 to 55,000 may end up bothering to vote.

Amy Searcy, the director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, said she believes the lack of a high-profile statewide ballot issue this year is having some impact on the requests for absentee ballots.

In 2009, Ohioans were going to the polls to vote on the casino constitutional amendment which led to the building of four casinos in Ohio, including Cincinnati’s Horseshoe.

In 2011, there was a ballot issue to repeal Senate Bill 5, which would have severely limited the ability of public employees’ unions to bargain contracts with management. Organized labor, President Obama’s campaign organization, and Democratic Party organizations organized a massive campaign and managed to repeal the GOP-backed bill by a wide margin.

There’s nothing like that on the ballot in Ohio this time.

“People were just inundated with TV ads in those campaigns and that kept the idea of getting out to vote in their heads,’’ Searcy said.

Plus, she said, there are far fewer local ballot issues in Hamilton County this year – only 21. In recent years, there have been three times as many.

Hamilton County Democratic Party chairman Tim Burke, who is also chairman of the board of elections, said that Searcy’s theory on the lack of statewide issues is not quite on the mark.

“I don’t think the casino issue in 2009 had that kind of energy behind it,’’ Burke said. “Senate Bill 5 certainly did two years ago. That drove up the Democratic vote considerably.”

Burke said he believes absentee ballots will spike upward in the next few weeks, mainly due to Issue 4 – a tea party-backed charter amendment that would substantially change the city of Cincinnati’s pension system for employees, a system that is in serious financial trouble. Ohio Auditor Dave Yost says the underfunding of the pension system could bankrupt the city.

The labor unions, all nine council members, both the mayoral candidates, the Democratic Party, the Charter Committee and a host of others have come out against Issue 4, saying it would be a financial disaster, both for the city and its retirees.

Burke said he expects organized labor to mail out thousands of absentee ballot applications in the next few weeks, which he said will drive the numbers up.

But the real problem, according to Burke, is that Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted won’t let boards of elections mail each voter an absentee application, as Hamilton County did in 2009.

“It just makes it harder for people to vote absentee,’’ Burke said.

His counterpart in the Hamilton County Republican Party, chairman Alex Triantafilou, said that Burke’s complaint is “just politics,” aimed at Husted, a Republican.

“If you look at the numbers, the in-person early voting at the board of elections is way down, much lower than in other years,’’ Triantafilou said. “You can’t blame that on people not being mailed absentee ballot applications.”

General voter apathy – mixed with a little disgust – is at the root of the problem, Triantafilou said.

“People look at what is happening in Washington and they are just disgusted,’’ Triantafilou said. “A lot of people have just tuned out politics altogether.”

If Triantafilou is right and it is voter apathy driving the low numbers of absentee ballot applications, then this will, indeed, be a very low turnout election.

So low, in fact, that we could have one of every four Cincinnati voters choosing a mayor and nine members of council, who will be there for the next four years. It is not a pretty picture.