In Ohio, Mixed Messages On Mail-In Ballots Hit GOP And Democratic Voters Differently
Ohio voters have requested over 1.8 million absentee ballots, more than twice the number of applications at this point four years ago. And there’s a clear trend emerging: Voters affiliated with the Democratic party are seizing the opportunity to vote early by mail, while Republican-affiliated voters are pulling back.
Messages about early voting are coming from political parties and voting rights groups. The Secretary of State’s office released a public service announcement telling voters, “Don’t wait. With more Ohioans planning to vote absentee than ever, now is the time to submit your request.”
At the same time, President Trump has been pushing a very different message.
"I think that mail-in voting is a terrible thing," the president said at a White House press conference in April, while the COVID-19 pandemic was pushing many states to extend voting by mail. "I think if you vote, you should go. And even the concept of early voting is not the greatest.”
Trump has repeated his unfounded criticisms of voting by mail multiple times, although he admitted he voted by mail in the Florida primary and plans to vote by mail again in the general election.
Trump then suggested that voters who mail their ballots also go to their polling places on Election Day to test the system by voting again – an action which would be illegal in Ohio, and Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has warned against.
But the dueling messages appear to be having an effect on Ohio voters. While most Ohio voters are unaffiliated, those affiliated with the Democratic Party are flooding election boards with absentee ballot requests. In some counties, those ballot requests have already outpaced the total number of Democratic absentee ballots returned in 2016.
(In Ohio, voters don't register with parties, but are considered affiliated with a particular party if they have voted that party's ballot in a primary for three years.)
“Donald Trump and his rhetoric has pushed voters towards us. Now it's important for Democrats that we turn them out," said Chris Redfern, the former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party and a current campaign consultant.
Redfern now chairs the local Democratic Party in Ottawa County near Toledo, a bellwether county that voted for Trump in 2016.
“Absentee ballot requests are an indication of enthusiasm, but they're not an indication of support," Redfern says. "What is an indication of support is if you can track those ballots, get them turned in once the absentee ballots are released in early October.”
Ohio will start sending out those ballots around October 6, when early voting kicks off in the state.
Meanwhile, GOP-affiliated voters have been lagging far behind Democrats in absentee requests, and don’t seem to be embracing mail-in voting in the same way.
“And Republicans are significantly less likely to do so," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. "They're kind of following President Trump's lead, and most of them plan to vote at the polls on Election Day.”
Newhouse admits the strategy of urging people not to use an option that allows them to vote early from home is playing with fire.
“What happens on Election Day if we have bad weather someplace, or there’s long lines at the polls and people decide, 'Oh, I'm going to turn around and not vote'? So it's a little risky," Newhouse said. "But there’s enough intensity in this election and interest that I think voters are bound and determined to make sure their votes are cast.”
On that point, Redfern agrees.
“We'll continue to see record turnout with the early vote applications and then the early vote. I have no doubt about it," Redfern said. "If this was John McCain or Mitt Romney running for president in 2012, I'll be very, very worried. But there is no bottom for Donald Trump. He will say, he will do anything to get elected, and that will motivate Democrats all along.”
Newhouse says Republicans remain motivated too, and recent events like the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court, just make them more so.
“I think the intensity in this election was already a 12 on the 1-to-10 scale. And this just ratchets it up to, like, 15," Newhouse said. "It's hard to see how people could get any more focused in this election.”
The first presidential debate in Cleveland on September 29 will really matter, Newhouse says, with voting starting exactly a week later.
"The one reason why it matters so much right now is simply because voters have not seen them," Newhouse says. "Joe Biden, they don't know him that well. He hasn't come out on the issues. He's campaigning from his basement."
Biden was in Ohio right before the pandemic shutdown in March, and hasn’t come to Ohio since becoming the Democratic nominee.
Redfern is working for a Democratic win, and says he feels confident. Newhouse says it’s a tall order for Biden to take back a state that President Trump won by more than 446,000 votes over Hillary Clinton, but says he won’t predict anything at this point.