Ohioans have been casting their ballots for the 2010 midterm elections since September 28th. Voters in other states have also begun casting their ballots. By and large, these ballots are dribbling in, as they typically do so soon in the early voting period. Early voting usually begins to pick up pace as the election nears.
But something special is going on in two Ohio Democratic strongholds: Cuyahoga and Franklin counties.I track on this handy web page that other places around the country -- including other Ohio counties -- are so far reporting low single digit early voting rates. In stark contrast, over 112,000 votes have already been cast in these two Ohio counties. As a comparison, this represents over ten percent of all ballots cast in the 2006 election in these counties, with still some time to go.
I spoke with local election officials in both counties to understand what is fueling their early voting. They attribute this phenomenon to two factors. First, Ohio recently adopted no-fault absentee voting, which increased the pool of eligible early voters. Second, local election officials in these counties decided to mail an absentee ballot request form to every registered voter. The response has clearly been enthusiastic.
Questions remain how this will play out over the course of the entire election. Will early voting numbers continue to increase in the remaining days of the election, as they tend to do elsewhere and in other elections? Will this phenomenon actually increase turnout, or will voters simply substitute casting their ballot on Election Day for one cast by mail?
For the campaigns, every early vote cast by an identified supporter is a contact that they can scratch off their lists. They can then re-target their voter mobilization efforts to eligible persons who have not yet voted. That these votes are being banked in high Democratic areas is likely welcome news for statewide Democratic candidates, like Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland who is locked in a tight battle with Republican candidate John Kasich.
For pollsters conducting surveys in Ohio, these high levels of early voting will force them to modify their likely voter modeling to account for people who have already voted. Finally, early voting in these counties raises a good question how the much-discussed enthusiasm gap towards Republicans will actually play out when it comes to voting.
UPDATE: A helpful reader pointed me to Iowa statistics, which tell a similar story as Ohio. Someone forgot to tell Democratic voters about the enthusiasm gap. 42% of the 119,430 early voters in Iowa are registered Democrats compared with 29% registered as Republican. A county-by-county analysis shows registered Democrats in Iowa returning their mail ballots at a higher rate than Republicans.