Why are absentee ballots fading away?

Apr 27, 2014

As of Thursday, early absentee ballots cast in Hamilton County in the May 6 primary were down 80 percent from what they were four years ago.

Democrats say this is explained by the fact that, unlike the May 2010 primary, every voter in the county was not mailed an absentee ballot application by the Hamilton County Board of Elections.

Republicans say it is simply a matter of no big candidate race or ballot issue driving early voters to get their ballots and mail them in – that this is, in fact, a ho-hum election.

The numbers are really striking.

Twelve days before the May 4, 2010 primary election, the Hamilton County Board of Elections had processed 41,482 absentee ballot applications.

By Thursday, 12 days out from this year’s primary, only 8,482 absentee ballot applications had been processed.

Anyway you cut it, there were five times as many absentee ballots processed by this point four years ago than have been processed today.

“There is no question that the fact we can no longer mail out absentee ballot applications is cutting into voter participation,’’ said Caleb Faux, the executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party and a member of the board of elections. “And there is nothing good about that.”

Large urban counties like Hamilton County were once in the habit of mailing out absentee ballot applications. Small, rural counties weren’t, saying they lacked the money to do it.

The large urban counties are chock full of Democratic voters. The smaller counties are Republican strongholds.

In steps Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted and the Republican-controlled Ohio General Assembly.

Husted didn’t think it was fair that the big counties (read “Democratic”) could make such mass mailings while the small counties (read “Republican”) could not. He wanted one standard for all 88 counties. Husted issued an order forbidding county boards of elections from mailing out absentee ballot applications; and, earlier this year, the Republicans in the legislature put it into law.

Husted did say that he would mail out absentee ballots to all Ohio voters before this November’s election. But, after that, the law passed by the legislature would require Husted to come to the legislature to appropriate money for that purpose. And Husted says he will do that.

The chances of a GOP legislature appropriating that money in the future are probably slim to none; and slim’s left town.

Alex Triantafilou, the chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party and a board of elections member, said the fact that voters weren’t mailed absentee ballot applications is “but one small factor” in the 80 percent drop in absentee ballots this year over four years ago.

“Turnout has a whole lot to do with interest in an election and very little to do with whether or not a bureaucracy sends you a piece of paper in the mail,’’ Triantafilou said.

In 2010, Triantafilou said, there was a “heated” primary battle for county commissioner going on between Leslie Ghiz and Chris Monzel, one which Monzel ultimately won. There was also a spirited statewide primary on the Democratic side, with then-Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner taking on former Ohio attorney general Lee Fisher for the U.S. Senate nomination. Fisher won the primary, but was whipped by Republican Rob Portman in the November election.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything on the ballot this year to catch the imagination and interest of voters in that way,’’ Triantafilou said.

Faux said there is no way that could explain a drop of 80 percent in absentee ballot applications.

“People responded to the applications they were mailed in 2010,’’ Faux said. “This argument that the secretary of state and the Republicans make that you have to do everything exactly the same in every county just doesn’t hold water.”

With about 550,000 registered voters, Faux said, Hamilton County has logistical problems that the smaller counties don’t face. Maximizing the early vote makes sense, Faux said, because it means less potential for long lines at the polling places on election day.

Back in 2004, Faux said, there were about 1,100 precincts in Hamilton County and a polling place for each one. Since then, the board has been consolidating precincts to the point where there are about half that many.

“Part of the justification for that was that we had made it easy to vote by mail and people were doing that,’’ Faux said.

Triantafilou said the Democrats are “throwing up distractions. The fact is that it has ever been easier to vote in Ohio.”

“Anyone can request an absentee ballot,’’ Triantafilou said. “You can download a form on the board’s website. There is early in-person voting. And you can still do it the old-fashioned way – go to your polling place on election day.”

The numbers speak for themselves. There has been a precipitous drop-off in absentee balloting over the past four years.

Perhaps the answers will come this fall, when Husted mails out absentee applications to all eight million or so registered voters. Then we may see what impact that piece of paper has.