Ohio voters have requested 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 – those who are affiliated with the Democratic party are seizing the opportunity to vote early by mail, while Republican-affiliated voters are pulling back from that option.
Messages about early voting are coming from political parties, voting rights groups and the Secretary of State’s office, which has released a public service announcement that says in part: “Don’t wait. With more Ohioans planning to vote absentee than ever, now is the time to submit your request.”
But there’s also this message from President Trump, from a White House press conference in April: "I think that mail-in voting is a terrible thing. I think if you vote, you should go. And even the concept of early voting is not the greatest.”
He’s said that several times, though he's admitted he voted by mail in the Florida primary and plans to vote by mail in the general election.
And he’s also suggested that voters who mail in ballots also go to their polling places on election day with the intent to vote to test the system – an action which his fellow Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has said would be illegal in Ohio.
But the dueling messages appear to be having an effect on Ohio voters who are affiliated with the two major political parties. (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.)
While most Ohio voters are unaffiliated with either party, those who have voted Democratic in primaries are flooding boards of elections with absentee ballot requests – sometimes with more requests already then the total number of absentee ballots that were returned by Democratic-affiliated voters in all of 2016.
“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 who now and now chairs the party in bellwether Ottawa County near Toledo. It voted for Trump in 2016. Redfern is also a Democratic campaign consultant.
But Redfern adds: “Absentee ballot requests are an indication of enthusiasm, but they're not an indication of support. 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.”
Meanwhile, GOP affiliated voters have been lagging far behind Democrats in absentee ballot requests, and don’t seem to be embracing mail in voting like Democrats are.
“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 a bit of 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, such as the death of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 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.”
And Newhouse said the presidential debate in Cleveland on September 29 will really matter, 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. Joe Biden, they don't know him that well. He hasn't come out on the issues. He's campaigning from his basement," Newhouse said.
Joe Biden was in Ohio right before the pandemic shutdown in March, and hasn’t come to Ohio since becoming the Democratic nominee.
Polls have shown a close race in Ohio with Trump up slightly in most.
Redfern is working for a Democratic win, and says he feels confident. But 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 he says he won’t predict anything.