Early Voting in Franklin County Hits Record Numbers

County elections director Matt Damschroder looks through thousands of unopened absentee ballots. Stored in a vault, they'll be opened and counted the morning of November 7th.
County elections director Matt Damschroder looks through thousands of unopened absentee ballots. Stored in a vault, they'll be opened and counted the morning of November 7th.

With absentee ballots pouring in some county election boards are pleading for approval to start counting or scanning the ballots into computers before Election Day. But state officials said Wednesday that Ohio law has no provision to allow the early counting of votes. Here in Franklin County, board of elections officials say they are surprised at the large number of people taking advantage of the new, early voting law. They now predict that one-third of all ballots counted on November 7th will be cast before election day.

A group of county elections employees continues to take an almost non-stop wave of phone calls from people asking about voting absentee.

“Yes, your absentee ballot application has been processed and is in the mail. We’ve processed over 70,000 of these and they’re all going out at various days and various times.”

That number, 70,000, is already out of date. Franklin County elections director Matt Damschroder says officials have had to raise early voting estimates several times.

“At this point we’re pushing 80,000 actual applications so we’re kind of revising our estimates up again for about the third or fourth time” Damschroder says. “We think we’ll hit 100,000 or more for this election.”

That means that one-third of Franklin County voters – more than 100,000 – will have already cast their ballots by the time Election Day rolls around; twice as many as voted absentee in 2004. Under a new Ohio law, people don’t need an excuse to vote early.

Some voters in line this week at the elections board say they enjoy the convenience; others, like Bill Friday, remember the hassles of Election Day two years ago.,

“Well I wanted to avoid waiting in line,” Friday says.

Joan Harris, who was holding an I Voted Today lapel sticker, says she would be recuperating.

“I’m going to have surgery next week and I won’t be ready,” Harris says. “So I thought that I would get it done and know that it was done!”

Nathaniel and Marta Jordan voted early, they said, because they’d be out of town November 7th.

“So while it snows here we’ll be in the Island of Hawaii during vacation time!”

Elections director Damschroder says there’s no demographic trend in early voting figures. Those requesting absentee ballots, he says, are spread evenly across the county’s precincts. 50% of requests are from unaffiliated voters, he says, a quarter from Republicans, a quarter from Democrats.

Earlier this week, as the absentee ballot line was thinning out, a group of about 30 would-be voters was coming in. The two vanloads were brought downtown by ACORN, the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, according to member Sharrain Davis.

“You never know what’s going to happen on Election Day. You may run into long lines, you may have to work, you may get busy,” Davis says. “But by coming out here early you’re ensuring that you’re actually going to vote and that your voice will be heard.”

But elections director Damschroder says he does not think that early voting will mean more people taking part in the upcoming election.

“What we’ll probably find on Election Day is just a slight increase in turnout over previous gubernatorial election years,” says Damschroder.

But the dramatic increase in early voting will undoubtedly mean a change in the way candidates run their campaigns, according to Terry Casey.

“If everybody was geared to their final advertsing a few days before the election, but you’ve got a third of people that have voted ahead, suddenly it’s going to be a different game for the future.”

Last week on WOSU-TV, Casey, a political observer and former Franklin County elections director, predicted a fundamental shift in campaign strategy.

“It definitely challenges the whole media mix of ‘Should you be on TV in the last week or so?’ And ‘When do you do your direct mail?’ Clearly it has the potential to totally change everything upside down.

Other observers wonder whether the ability to vote early will actually cause a decline in voter turnout.

“I do think it’s difficult to frame over a month that this is Election Month. And that may affect how we perceive voting.”

Terri Enns is an Ohio State University law professor and former legal counsel to the Ohio senate democratic caucus.

“It does change a little bit how we think about an election when it’s spread out over time,” Enns says. “I think we need to think about the sort of ethos about voting when it’s spread out over time for a large percentage of people, compared to what we do on election day as a community, as a state, as a nation, when we go to the polling place. And I don’t think we know those implications yet.”

Meanwhile the Franklin County elections board continues to send out thousands more ballots. Those that are returned in time will be counted early on the morning of November 7th. And they’ll be the first election results announced that evening.