Tuesday's Election: Big Issues; Probably Not So Big Turnout

Nov 1, 2015

If you are going to your polling place Tuesday – or if you have voted already – you are likely in the minority among your friends, your co-workers, and your neighbors.

Most of them will not vote in Tuesday’s election – either in Kentucky, where they are choosing a new governor; or in Ohio, where voters are being asked to approve not only the legalization of marijuana but the creation of a large and likely very profitable industry to grow, process and sell it.

New governor? Legalizing marijuana? Sounds to us like the kind of things that should bring voters out in droves.

But they won’t.

It will be another lackluster, off-year election turnout – some places in the 20 percent ranges, other places a little more than 30 percent. And, once again, a relatively small number of people will make the decisions for the overwhelming majority who are far too busy to participate in the democratic process.  

Oh, we’ll do much better next year. Next year, we elect the 45th president of the United States and both houses of Congress are up for grabs. Probably a little more than seven of every 10 Americans will participate in that election.

But in a year where, in Ohio at least, every little village, township, municipality and county has candidate races and ballot issues to decide, most people will stay home. Even though local government is the one closest to them in their daily lives.

Let’s take the governor’s race in Kentucky for example. Gov. Steve Beshear, a tw0-term Democrat, can’t run again. There are three candidates on the ballot who want to replace him – Jack Conway, the Democratic attorney general; Matt Bevin, the Louisville businessman who won the Republican gubernatorial primary in May by a mere 83 votes; and independent  Drew Curtis, an internet entrepreneur.

Millions and millions of dollars have been spent on this race, one of only three governorships up for election this year. The name-calling has been non-stop; the televised debates have venomous.

There is no way any Kentuckian – from Paducah to Ashland, from Covington to Corbin – has been able to avoid this brouhaha.

Yet, most election officials around the state are predicting a low-turnout.

“I’m expecting a turnout in the low 20s, typical for state races,’’ said Campbell County Clerk Jim Luersen, who will be overseeing his first general election since being elected to the job last year.

Luersen said that aside from governor and the other statewide offices, the only other contested race in Campbell County is for mayor of Cold Spring.

“I haven’t seen the excitement out there, for the governor’s race or anything else,’’ Luersen said. “This is going to be one of those elections where only the true believers are going to come out.”

It’s hard to tell what Issue 3, the marijuana legalization constitutional amendment will do to turn out. Proponents have spent millions on the airwaves and stuffing Ohioans’ mail boxes with slick lit pieces.

But does that translate to a large turnout?

Many elections officials around the state are doubtful.

Big-ticket ballot issues have jacked up voter turnout in Ohio in the past off-year elections.

In 2009, it was about 45 percent when 53 percent of Ohio voters approved a constitutional amendment that brought casino gambling to the Buckeye State.

In 2011, after the Republicans in the legislature passed Senate Bill 5, which would have severely limited public employees’ unions, organized labor, the Obama political machine and the Democratic Party in Ohio came together to put a repeal initiative on the ballot. It was an intense and expensive campaign; and the unions were successful in repealing Senate Bill 5. The turnout was 47 percent, not bad for an off-year election.

In southwest Ohio at least, election officials are not expecting turnout rates in the 40s.

“I’m projecting somewhere between 30 to 35 percent,’’ said Sherry Poland.

Poland said the early voting – by absentee ballot and in-person at the board of elections – is on par with the numbers from two years ago, the last off-year election. It was an election where Cincinnati elected a mayor and city council, but there was no big statewide issue on the ballot.

“It really doesn’t appear that the state ballot issues this year are having an impact on early voting,’’ Poland said. “We’ll see what election day brings. But it’s not likely to be a really large turnout.”

Low turnout or not, there are big issues to decide. In the city of Cincinnati, Issue 22 – a charter amendment, the brainchild of Mayor John Cranley, that would impose a permanent one mill levy for Cincinnati parks – has created a firestorm and divided the city, particularly the city’s Democrats.

Every single suburban community through southwest Ohio has village, city or township offices up for election this year – hundreds of races, with hundreds of candidates.

Judy Miller, the director of the Clermont County Board of Elections, said that when the election season first began she thought that Issue 3 might push turnout in her county up to around 50 percent, based on what happened in 2009, when casino gambling was on the ballot.

But now, she says, the turnout is not likely to be anywhere near that. Absentee ballots and early voting are about one-third less than they were two years ago, Miller said.

“The candidate races are not going to be drawing people to the polls, because so many of them are unopposed,’’ Miller said. “We have small villages in the county where nobody filed for some of the village offices.”

There are important issues on the ballot in the county, Miller said – the renewal of a tax levy for children’s services and a renewal and increase tax levy for alcohol, drug addiction and mental health services.

“There are important issues out there – there are in every county,’’ Miller said.

But Miller predicted a turnout of 32 percent.

“Maybe 32; it could be worse,’’ she said. “There are important issues out there. But hardly anybody seems to care.”

It looks, from all indications, like another election where a slice of the voting population makes the decisions for an uninformed and disinterested majority.

Sad, but true.