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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis shows why turnout for Cincinnati elections is so low

John Minchillo
A voters casts their ballot at the Cincinnati Public Library's polling station, Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.

You would think that with all the talk of the "culture of corruption" at Cincinnati City Hall, voters would be likely to come out in droves in this City Council and mayoral election, hell-bent on sweeping out the old and sweeping in the new.

Well, maybe. We have yet to see. But the numbers suggest otherwise.

The only way to predict turnout in a municipal election like this one – an election that will produce a new mayor and, potentially, an entirely new City Council – is to look at voters' behavior in the past.

And that means some heavy number-crunching.

The kind of number-crunching that Caleb Faux, a veteran Democratic political activist and strategist, did with the list of 216,627 Cincinnati voters.

Faux is the former executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and former member of the Hamilton County Board of Elections. And he knows a thing or two about campaigns and using public records to target and persuade voters.

After looking at spreadsheets of all Cincinnati voters and grouping them into categories, Faux has come to one unfortunate realization – there is simply no way to persuade nearly half of the Cincinnati electorate to come out for a local election.

“I came to the conclusion that 46% were not even worth wasting time with regarding the council campaign,’’ Faux said.

There are three reasons for this, he said:

  • Their voter histories suggest they are either no longer living, have moved or simply stopped voting years ago.
  • The voter history shows that these people have indicated zero interest in any local election in the past.
  • Or they have registered to vote more than two years ago but have never voted at all.

In the past four Cincinnati municipal elections, voter turnout has ranged from a high of 37.7% in 2011 to a low of 29.4% in 2017. The average turnout over those four elections was 32.4%.

“I see no reason why turnout this year would be much different,’’ Faux said.

Even with the mayor’s race between Democrats David Mann and Aftab Pureval layered on top of the council race, turnout is unlikely to be much higher, Faux said.

“There’s nothing to suggest a mayoral race will drive up turnout,’’ Faux said. “We should expect something close to the average, at best.”

Faux’s analysis broke up Cincinnati voters into three distinct groups:

  • “Fairly certain voters,” who will show up for elections 80% of the time or more. They represent nearly 54,000 of total number of voters.
  • “Sort of likely voters,’’ who show up 50% of time or more and represent 13,298 of the total.
  • “Maybe voters,” who show up 25% of the time and represent 29,909 voters.
  • And newly registered voters, who have yet to vote in a partisan primary and make up 4,452 of the total.

Why do Democrats dominate Cincinnati elections?

The answer is found in Faux’s analysis. Among the “fairly certain voters” – the most reliable group of voters – 49% are Democrats, based on the ballots they picked up in partisan primary elections; 42% have not indicated a party preference and only 8% have taken Republican ballots in primaries.

Republican voters hover between 1% and 0.5% in the other categories.

It is clear that in the three identifiable groups of voters, Democrats make up at least 50% of the vote, Faux said.

“Republicans are barely even a factor,’’ Faux said. “And there are lot of voters who don’t clearly identify with either party.”

This is all good news for the Democratic candidates for City Council, both those endorsed by the party and those who are not.

But there are four endorsed Republican candidates for council, three of whom – Betsy Sundermann, Steve Goodin and Liz Keating – are currently on council through appointments to vacancies. The other is State Rep. Tom Brinkman.

Clearly, there are not enough Republican votes in the city to elect them unless they reach out and try to attract independent and Democratic voters.

Two of them – Goodin and Keating – have the advantage of being endorsed by the Charter Committee, Cincinnati’s independent political party, which means they will be listed on all of Charter’s campaign literature and be exposed to voters who might not ordinarily consider GOP candidates for council.

So what advice does the local Republican Party give its council candidates when they go out among an electorate that is so overwhelmingly Democratic?

Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, said that when he advises council candidates, it is about setting a goal.

“Last year, (Hamilton County Prosecutor) Joe Deters got nearly 41,000 votes in the city of Cincinnati,’’ Triantafilou said. “I tell our council candidates if they can get half of that many votes, they are elected to one of the nine seats on council.”

And, clearly, based on the Faux analysis, there are not enough GOP voters in the city to do that.

That means that if you are one of those independent, non-affiliated voters, you are probably going to find a lot of campaign literature from Republican candidates in your mailbox.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.