COMMENTARY

Count on Ohio, and count our votes right

10/28/2012
BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

Ohioans are poised to pick the next pres­i­dent — just as soon as we make up our col­lec­tive mind how we’re go­ing to vote.

Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts, party lead­ers, and poll­sters agree that as the race be­tween Pres­i­dent Obama and Mitt Rom­ney has tight­ened to a vir­tual tie na­tion­wide, barely a week be­fore Elec­tion Day, it’s in­creas­ingly likely that Ohio will con­trib­ute the de­ci­sive vote that pro­vides the tip­ping point in the Elec­toral Col­lege.

“Ohio is cen­tral enough to the elec­toral math that it now seems to mat­ter as much as the other 49 states put to­gether,” Nate Sil­ver, the New York Times’ elec­tion fore­caster, said last week. He told Tole­doans: “I am not sure whether I should be con­grat­u­lat­ing you or con­sol­ing you.”

Bob Ben­nett, the chair­man of the Ohio Re­pub­li­can Party, is even more em­phatic. “Ohio will elect the next pres­i­dent,” he de­clares. He quickly adds: “And it’ll be Rom­ney.”

That last part isn’t so clear. Ac­cord­ing to a poll out to­day, spon­sored by The Blade and the state’s other larg­est news­pa­pers, likely Ohio vot­ers are split right down the mid­dle: 49 per­cent for the Pres­i­dent, 49 per­cent for his Re­pub­li­can chal­lenger. (Our en­dorse­ment of Mr. Obama’s re-elec­tion ap­pears on the ad­ja­cent page.)

So Ohio could well de­ter­mine the out­come of this year’s elec­tion, just as Flor­ida did in 2000 on a ra­zor-thin vote mar­gin. Re­mem­ber those thrill­ing days? But­ter­fly bal­lots, hang­ing chads, and dim­ple dents? A month of law­suits and re­counts? The U.S. Supreme Court — on a 5-4 vote — es­sen­tially nam­ing George W. Bush pres­i­dent over Al Gore?

If the eyes of the na­tion and world are go­ing to fo­cus on our state, we don’t want it to be be­cause of a sim­i­lar fi­asco here. So the state and lo­cal of­fi­cials who run Ohio’s elec­tions need to do ev­ery­thing they can to make the vot­ing ma­chin­ery work flaw­lessly.

That means no screw-ups by the Lu­cas County Board of Elec­tions, in han­dling pro­vi­sional bal­lots or any­thing else. That means the state of­fi­cials who had to be or­dered by the U.S. Supreme Court to open early vot­ing in per­son to all el­i­gi­ble Ohio­ans next Satur­day, Sun­day, and Mon­day don’t al­low any­one to be dis­fran­chised.

That means that the record num­ber of ab­sen­tee bal­lots Ohio­ans are likely to cast this year get counted ef­fi­ciently, and the tally is an­nounced promptly. Ohio Sec­re­tary of State Jon Husted doesn’t want to worry about who will play him in the made-for-HBO movie.

That means no tol­er­ance of self-ap­pointed “poll watch­ers” who try to in­tim­i­date vot­ers. It means no re­prise of Ohio’s elec­toral golden old­ies: long lines of peo­ple still wait­ing to vote at poll clos­ing time, sup­pos­edly state-of-the-art vot­ing and vote-count­ing ma­chines break­ing down, poorly trained elec­tion work­ers di­rect­ing vot­ers to the wrong pre­cinct.

There’s al­ready been a hic­cup: The Ot­tawa County elec­tion board sent an an­nounce­ment to vot­ers in three pre­cincts that not only iden­ti­fied a wrong lo­ca­tion for their poll­ing place but also gave a date for Elec­tion Day that was two days late. Not a fa­tal er­ror, but it had bet­ter not set a trend.

Some ob­serv­ers worry that if the Ohio vote is so close that elec­tion of­fi­cials here can’t de­clare a win­ner un­til they count pro­vi­sional bal­lots, the next pres­i­dent’s iden­tity might re­main un­known un­til af­ter Thanks­giv­ing. Mr. Ben­nett says that’s un­likely; he pre­dicts that Mr. Rom­ney will carry Ohio by a larger mar­gin than cur­rent polls sug­gest, so that the out­come won’t have to turn on pro­vi­sional votes.

In any event, he says he’s con­fi­dent that Ohio won’t be­come this year’s equiv­a­lent of Flor­ida a dozen years ago.

“Com­mon Cause, which is not a con­ser­va­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion, ranked Ohio in the top five [states] in elec­tion laws and vot­ing,” he told me. “And vote fraud is not a big is­sue in Ohio. Does it oc­cur? Maybe a lit­tle bit. Will it make a dif­fer­ence? Prob­a­bly not.”

Two polls re­leased last week — one by Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity for CBS News, the other by Time mag­a­zine — gave Mr. Obama a com­fort­able five-point lead over Mr. Rom­ney in Ohio. But they were the ex­cep­tions. Most other polls place the ad­van­tage for ei­ther the Pres­i­dent or Mr. Rom­ney within the mar­gin of sur­vey er­ror — that is, a toss-up.

The Ohio news­pa­per poll sug­gests that Pres­i­dent Obama en­joys a siz­able ad­van­tage among early vot­ers. That’s not sur­pris­ing; re­search from past elec­tions shows that early-vot­ing Ohio­ans tend to be fe­male, older, poorer, less ed­u­cated, and ur­ban. That gen­er­ally makes them more likely to vote Demo­cratic. Of course, then-Gov. Ted Strick­land won the early vote in 2010 — but ul­ti­mately lost to Re­pub­li­can chal­lenger John Ka­sich.

The GOP cred­its its ground game in Ohio with turn­ing out early vot­ers in num­bers that are ex­ceed­ing the party’s ex­pec­ta­tions. Dem­o­crats say that the other party is bluff­ing and that they are do­ing even bet­ter in early vot­ing than they did four years ago. Take your pick.

Five weeks ago, Mr. Obama had a five-point lead in the Ohio news­pa­per poll; now it’s a dead heat. The new poll sug­gests that Re­pub­li­can vot­ers in our state are more en­thu­si­as­tic about the elec­tion than Dem­o­crats, but that Dem­o­crats are more strongly com­mit­ted to vot­ing.

Ohio­ans pre­fer the Pres­i­dent to make for­eign pol­icy but back Mr. Rom­ney on the econ­omy. Women tend to side with the Pres­i­dent, men with Mr. Rom­ney. Older and bet­ter-ed­u­cated vot­ers tend to sup­port Mr. Rom­ney; African-Amer­i­can vot­ers over­whelm­ingly back Mr. Obama.

The Pres­i­dent’s role in the auto in­dus­try bail­out gives him an edge among in­de­pen­dents, who rep­resent about 10 per­cent of Ohio vot­ers. But such vot­ers also are slightly more likely to think that Mr. Rom­ney won the de­bates.

That is, Ohio vot­ers re­main all over the map. But this year, Ohio is the map.

So make sure you vote, fel­low Ohio­ans. And to the folks who will count the votes: Please get it right.

David Kushma is ed­i­tor of The Blade. Con­tact him at: dkushma@the­blade.com