'Easier' voting in state showing little impact

Absentee and early voting are up, but Election Day voting is down, meaning no overall increase

Voting has been made easier in Ohio over the last eight years, but the improved access has not led to an increase in turnout, according to a Dayton Daily News analysis.

In fact, the percentage of Ohio registered voters who cast ballots in the presidential election of 2008 was lower than the percentage in 2004. And the percentage who voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election was lower than in 2006.

The results raise questions about the degree to which voting patterns are dependent on ease of voting, or if other factors are involved.

Virtually every method of voting in Ohio has changed since 2004, when long lines caused some residents to leave without voting, putting the state in a negative spotlight nationally.

Ohioans now vote electronically, have a 35-day early voting window and can vote via absentee ballot without providing an excuse.

But despite the changes, Ohio voter turnout fell from 71.8 percent of registered voters in 2004 to 70.0 percent in 2008, and fell from 53.3 percent in 2006 to 49.2 percent in 2010. The trend is the same in Montgomery County, as turnout fell from 73.4 percent to 72.0 in the presidential years, and from 58.3 percent to 48.9 in gubernatorial years.

Secretary of State Jon Husted, Ohio’s top elections official, says he thinks turnout has more to do with people’s frustration with politics than any structural flaws in the voting process.

“When you have billions of dollars spent, and most of that money is focused on why each other’s opponent is such a bad person, it has a collective effect of making people believe that there is nobody worth voting for. … and it would be no surprise that they stay home,” Husted said.

As the debate rages over weekend and evening hours for early voting, Husted also pointed out that Ohio’s six largest counties offered expanded hours and weekend voting in 2008, but overall voter turnout was down slightly that year in five of the six counties. Turnout mainly tracked population shifts, as population was up in Franklin County and down in the other five.

“While changes in the law have occurred that have been motivated to make it easier to vote, they have had almost no impact on voter turnout,” Husted said. “One could conclude that ease of access to the polls is not the primary contributor or inhibitor of voter turnout.”

Political experts say it is too soon to say whether ease of access will ultimately translate into greater voter turnout.

“Early voting may be more about convenience among people who would vote anyway,” said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Center for Applied Politics.

Voter turnout numbers also don’t take into consideration the impact of voter registration drives.

“Lots of things go into those numbers,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University. “In general, we have had too few elections to make a firm decision about the impact of those laws in Ohio. Also, the percentage of people who are registered has gone up, which means the number actually voting would have to go up to keep those numbers the same.”

Smith said the decision to vote is also influenced by other factors, including “age, education level and political efficacy, which is the idea that an individual’s vote actually matters.”

One of the biggest changes is the advent of electronic voting machines, which replaced punch card ballots after the Florida “hanging chads” controversy in the 2000 election, said Richard Saphire, professor of law at the University of Dayton. The federal Help America Vote Act provided money to replace the old equipment with touchscreens and optical scan machines.

Much of the impetus for expanding voting opportunity in Ohio grew out of the 2004 presidential election.

“We had a very bad experience in Ohio in 2004. The experience was long lines and many people being frustrated in their effort to cast a ballot,” said Ellis Jacobs, senior attorney for Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, which has taken a lead in voting rights efforts locally.

The lines were blamed on inadequate allocation of voting equipment, technical problems, structural problems, a large voter turnout and inadequate hours to vote in person in advance of Election Day, Jacobs said.

“In response to that, the legislature expanded the opportunities for early voting,” he said.

The result was a smooth 2008 election, where Election Day lines were not a major problem and early in-person voting proved to be a hit.

Jacobs was critical of the state’s recent changes to early voting — the Ohio legislature eliminated in-person voting for the last three days before the election, and Husted set uniform early-voting hours, which cut voting time in Montgomery, Greene, Warren and Butler counties.

Jacobs said it could hit hard in Montgomery County, where the board of elections consolidated precincts in 2009 and cut the number of voting locations in half to save money.

“They anticipated that future elections would see an ever-increasing number of people voting early,” Jacobs said.

Although early voting hours are somewhat limited this year compared to 2008, every Ohio resident will receive an absentee ballot application in the mail, which Husted argues is an expansion of access for voters.

During this month’s debate over weekend voting in Montgomery County — in which Board of Elections members Dennis Lieberman and Tom Ritchie Sr. were fired by Husted — some Democrats argued that people don’t trust mail voting.

MCBOE Director Betty Smith said voters needn’t worry about that. Once the mail voting period begins, she said, any resident can enter his name on the BOE website and see the date his absentee application was received, the date the ballot was mailed out and whether the finished ballot was received and counted.

BOE Deputy Director Steve Harsman pointed to other efforts aimed at streamlining 2012 Election Day voting, including mailing postcards next month reminding voters of their polling location in the wake of the 2009 precinct consolidations.

“There have been more changes in the past seven years than there were in the previous 200,” Harsman said.

Mark Caleb Smith, the Cedarville professor, said voters “are demanding convenience. Short lines, easy-to-use machines, and flexibility are priorities for many states and localities,” he said.

A Bliss Institute study of early voters in 2010 found 64 percent said they cast early ballots because of the convenience.

“The drive during the 20th century was to make voting more accessible regardless of race and gender,” Smith said. “In the 21st century the focus has been on making voting simpler and easier for everyone.”

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