Final weekend of in-person early voting: Will it matter?

Oct 21, 2012

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has settled the hash and allowed in-person voting at Ohio boards of Elections on the final three days before the Nov. 6 election to go forward, there is only one question worth asking.

Was it worth the fight the Obama-Biden campaign put up to stop Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, from doing away with those three days?

Depends on who you ask.

If you ask the Obama-Biden campaign and its Democratic allies, the answer is an unqualified “yes.”

“You saw those long lines outside the board of elections four years ago, wrapping around the building and down the alley,’’ said Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Democratic Party. “Those people, overwhelmingly, were there to vote for Barack Obama.”

Republicans, on the other hand, say the Democrats over-rate the importance of the in-person early voting at boards of elections; and continue to believe that adding voting hours on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday before the election was unnecessary, especially given the fact that there have already been 19 days of early voting in Ohio – both mail-in absentee ballots and in-person voting.

Then, why, Democrats ask, did the Republican secretary of state go to such great things to have those final three days eliminated?

In Hamilton County – which could end playing a pivotal role in who wins the key battleground state of Ohio – the in-person early voting at the board of elections is somewhat down from what it was at this point of the campaign four years ago – 7,290 had voted at the board offices on Broadway downtown as of Thursday, compared to 7,735 at the same point in the race in 2008.

The fact is that in-person voting at the board of elections makes up a significant but less than overwhelming part the total number of voters.

Four years ago – when, indeed, there were long lines outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections on the Saturday and Monday before the election (the board was closed on Sunday that year) – 429,267 people ended up voting in Hamilton County. Of them, 6.3 percent had voted early at the board of elections.

Now, when you add in the people who voted early by mailing in absentee ballots, you are talking about real numbers – they, along with the early in-person voters – made up 27.6 percent of the Hamilton County electorate. 

And, if as the post-election polling suggested, Obama led by a substantial margin over GOP nominee John McCain among those voters, it would be very difficult to argue that those early voters didn’t have a lot to do with the fact that Obama beat McCain by nearly 30,000 in Hamilton County.

And won Ohio, to boot.

Both the Obama-Biden campaign and the Romney-Ryan campaign are tracking early voting – both by absentee ballot and in-person – very closely, getting reports from Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections on a daily basis.  Not surprisingly, they are coming to radically different conclusions.

Jeremy Bird, national field director for the Obama-Biden campaign, put out a memo Friday citing independent polls that had Obama leading among those Ohioans who have already voted by anywhere from 19 percentage points (Survey USA) to 52 percentage points (Public Policy Polling).

Chris Maloney, a spokesman for the Romney-Ryan campaign in Ohio, fired back with a Republican chart that concluded Republicans have outpaced Democrats in early voting for 12 straight days, with the Democratic lead dipping under seven percentage points.

The Democrats had a 20 percentage point advantage four years ago.

Where the Republicans seem to have an advantage is in the mail-in absentee balloting – by a nearly two-to-one margin in Hamilton County. Their voters, highly concentrated in the suburbs, are more likely to fill out ballots at their kitchen tables and mail them in than to come downtown to the board of elections. 

Four years ago, when the Hamilton County Board of Elections was open to early voters on the Saturday and Monday before the election, 3,081 showed up during the 20 hours the board was open.

This year – the board will be open an additional 16 hours – 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4; and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 5. Those were the hours ordered by Husted after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out his request for a stay of a federal appeals court ruling striking down his ban on voting the weekend before the election.

Will those 16 hours make a difference?

Hard to say. The Democrats are working hard to make sure they do. Last week, Jesse Jackson was in town, talking to black ministers in Cincinnati on their “souls to the polls” strategy, where preachers urge their congregations to get out to vote and vote now.

On Oct. 9, the last day of voter registration, the “souls to the polls” operation ran school buses from two locations taking people to the board of elections on Broadway to first, get them registered, and second, to vote.

You can rest assured the same kind of thing will happen on the final weekend of the election.
Will it matter?

In an extremely close election – something Ohio could most certainly have – the answer is a definite “yes.”

And if you don’t believe it, we refer you to the year 2000 and Florida.