Ohio voters may be about to make history.
But not the kind of history you’ll want to brag about.
It looks increasing likely that, on Tuesday, Ohio will have the lowest turnout in a gubernatorial election since the Ohio secretary of state began tracking voter turnout in 1978.
And, at least in Northern Kentucky, the turnout may be pretty low too – even with one of the noisiest, most expensive and most important U.S. Senate races in the country, pitting Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell against Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
But, at least in Kentucky, they have a hotly contested race to watch at the top of the ticket.
Ohio has no U.S. Senate race this year. And it has no hot button ballot issue, like gay marriage or right-to-work, to drive voters to the polls. But it does have a governor’s race.
And the consensus among Ohio politics-watchers is that the governor’s race is a dud. Independent polling shows the Republican incumbent, John Kasich, is going to smash Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald on Tuesday, a candidate who has had little money, something less than universal name recognition and many negative headlines throughout the campaign.
John C. Green, the director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron and a long-time student of Ohio politics, believes the turnout Tuesday could dip below 45 percent.
That would make it the lowest turnout election in a gubernatorial year on record – the previous record being 47.8 percent in 2002, when GOP incumbent Bob Taft easily defeated Democratic challenger Tim Hagan.
“We’ve had a very low temperature campaign here in Ohio this year, largely because the gubernatorial race hasn’t been very competitive,’’ Green said. “It really looks like it will be below 2002.”
In 2010, when Kasich defeated incumbent Democratic governor Ted Strickland, the voter turnout statewide was 49 percent.
“Part of that was disillusionment on the Democratic side,’’ Green said. “That is the case now too. But I think we are also seeing a little complacency on the Republican side.”
Early absentee ballots, Green said, are usually a pretty good indication of what turnout will be. In Hamilton County, as of Friday, the absentee ballot requests processed by the board of elections were down 20 percent from the same period of time in 2010. That’s the case in most of the state’s large urban counties, Green said.
Most election officials in southwest Ohio and northern Kentucky are predicting fairly low turnouts.
Sherry Poland, director of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, predicted a turnout of 42 percent to 45 percent. Four years ago, in the last gubernatorial election, Hamilton County’s turnout was 51 percent – slightly above the statewide figure.
“Maybe we will be surprised and it will be higher,’’ Poland said. “I know our poll workers would like it. They have a long day on Tuesday anyway; and they’d rather be busy than sitting around all day.”
As for why voter turnout will be down, Poland said, “your guess is as good as mine. I’m not sure what the problem is – if it is the fact that there’s not really a hot ticket item on the ballot. But all the contests and issues that appear on Tuesday’s ballot are extremely important, so it is important that people vote.”
In Butler County, elections director Lynn Kincaid said that several months ago, he thought that the turnout in his county might be about 51 percent. Now he is predicting 43 percent.
“I base that mostly on the absentee returns, which are down considerably this year,’’ Kincaid. “There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm out there.”
Across the river in Kentucky, Campbell County Clerk Jack Snodgrass is administering his 48th and final election – he’s retiring after 25 years in the job.
Snodgrass’ turnout prediction is somewhere in the range of 35 to 38 percent.
“And there are a lot of contested races here, besides the Senate race,’’ Snodgrass said. “We’ve got judge executive up for election; we’ve got a lot of mayors being elected; and there’s a contested race for my job. But I don’t see turnout being more than 38 percent.”
On the Ohio side, Green said, there are people “who always vote. They have a strong sense of civic duty and just feel it is an obligation, even if they’re not very happy about the choices on the ballot.”
And the “very strong partisan voters” – both Democratic and Republican will show up at the polls, if they haven’t already voted, Green said.
But those people do not make up the majority of voters, Green said.
“We have very large numbers of those people who are sometimes called ‘marginal voters’ who need a lot of stimulus to get engaged in an election,’’ Green said. “But I don’t see that stimulus out there.
“We have no state ballot issues; we have no U.S. Senate race; and the (U.S.) House races are not very competitive anymore,’’ Green said. ‘’So if the governor’s race won’t get them out, it’s hard to see what will.”
There will be local races and local ballots issues that will spike turnout in many parts of the state, Green said, “but they are isolated examples.”
So, there may indeed be a record set on Tuesday. But let’s not bake a cake to celebrate.