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Who, and where, are Ohio’s ‘missing’ voters?

Ohio voted sticker
Jo Ingles
Statehouse News Bureau
Ohio voted sticker

Ohio voters are set to decide two highly contentious issues this week — one about abortion access, the other about legalizing recreational marijuana.

But despite the weight of the issues and the publicity they’ve received, a lot of Ohioans probably won’t cast a ballot.

About 2 million of the state’s eligible voters aren’t registered, according to an analysis of voter data by the progressive policy think tank Innovation Ohio.

Another 700,000 are inactive. They’re registered to vote, but haven’t in the last three federal elections.

“We've certainly seen a shift in election outcomes,” said Innovation Ohio’s president and CEO Desiree Tims. “At my heart and core, I had curiosity about why? Where are those people? What are they thinking?”

Ohio’s unregistered and inactive voters

The report, A Justice Agenda: Ohio’s Missing Voters, analyzed data from the Ohio Secretary of State, the U.S. Census and voter database Catalist, to figure out just who Ohio’s missing voters are.

In general, they’re centered in the state’s urban areas.

But unregistered and inactive voters are not one and the same.

“The demographic differences between those two, I found to be pretty jarring,” Tims said.

There’s a preconceived notion that unregistered voters are young, she said, but that’s not what the report found.

Instead, 70% of the state’s eligible but unregistered voters are older than 49. They’re also overwhelmingly white.

Inactive voters, on the other hand, skew younger and are concentrated in counties with a university presence, like Athens (home to Ohio University) and Wood County (home to Bowling Green State University).

Compared with unregistered voters, inactive voters are also more likely to be Black.

Why do so many people sit out elections?

There are lots of reasons why someone might not register to vote or cast a ballot, Tims said. For some, making it to the polls is a challenge in itself.

“People are focused on picking up their kids, making it to work on time, putting food on the table,” she said. “So the voting hours aren’t as flexible for people who just can't take a lunch break in the middle of the day.”

Sam Nelson, an associate professor of political science with the University of Toledo, said people also aren’t motivated to vote when they don’t think their ballot will make a difference.

But, he said, turnout is not just a product of individual choices.

“It's also a product of the policy of the state and the voter registration rules and the voting rules,” he said.

Recently, Ohio enacted one of the strictest voter identification laws in the country, requiring voters to show a photo ID like a driver’s license or passport at the polls.

Nelson said rules like this disproportionately affect certain groups of people: minority voters, voters with lower levels of income and education and young people.

“Do you have ID that shows an address when you're a college student?” he questioned. “I mean, we have students that, they're sleeping on friend's couches, they're moving back and forth between their parent's home and maybe a relative's home that's closer to campus or friends.”

A recent decline in voter participation

The impact of Ohio’s new voter ID legislation has yet to be felt. The law just went into effect earlier this year.

Still, Innovation Ohio’s report suggests voter turnout in the state is already on the decline.

Compared to the 2018 midterm election, turnout in Ohio’s 2022 midterm dropped 3.4%. That decline was even steeper in the state’s largest metros. Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton counties all saw 6-8% declines.

“We hear people say a lot, ‘I don't do politics,' even though politics will still do you.”
Desiree Tims, Innovation Ohio President and CEO

Nelson said that’s not surprising. Turnout in 2018 was abnormally high in response to former president Donald Trump.

“He turns out people who don't always vote, who vote for him,” Nelson said. “But he also turns out a lot of people who hate his guts and vote against him.”

Turnout in the 2022 midterm was more typical. For better or worse, Nelson said, President Biden just isn’t as polarizing as Trump was, and that means millions of people sat the election out.

“We were electing a governor in 2022. We were electing a senator,” Nelson said. “Those were pretty high-profile, expensive races, but still they don't attract the same amount of attention.”

In odd-numbered election years like this one, turnout tends to drop even more.

This election and beyond

But this election might break the norm.

“People have strong feelings about abortion and marijuana,” Nelson said. “You don't have to do a lot of prodding and cajoling to get people to take a position on these two issues.”

So, he predicts turnout will be higher than normal for this type of an election — though probably still not as high as a presidential year.

The question, he said, is whether turnout will be equally high across the state.

“Will we have high turnout across the board, or will it be concentrated?” he said. “That could have an effect on the outcome.”

If enough people don’t participate, the state could end up with policies that don’t reflect the will of the majority.

That’s why Desiree Tims said it’s so important to cast a ballot. At the end of the day, those policies (and the politicians who enact them) are decided by voters.

“We hear people say a lot, ‘I don't do politics,’" Tims said, “even though, you know, politics will still do you.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.