The Ohio “experiment” and partisan no-excuse absentee return rates

I have been tracking early vote returns with the team at the Early Voting Information Center.  A recent exchange with Matt Damschroder, the deputy director of the Board of Elections in Franklin County, OH, unearthed a fascinating administrative experiment underway in Ohio.

Damschroder, and his counterpart in Cuyahoga County, OH, have implemented some procedures to make it easier for their registered voters to return their ballots.  Both counties:

• Send no-excuse absentee applications to all voters on the NVRA list

• Paid for postage for registered voters to return their voted absentee ballot

• Cuyahoga only also is paying postage for registered voters to mail in their absentee ballot application.

Given this administrative innovation, it should be possible to examine the responsiveness of citizens to administrative outreach with respect to no-excuse absentee voting.  The patterns are fascinating.  As the table below shows, self-identified partisans are dramatically more responsive to these outreach efforts.

Partisan Responsiveness to “Push” No Excuse Absentee Balloting
Franklin County Democrat Republicans Unaffiliated Minor Parties
Active Registered 83629 77833 478752 2367
Requests Returned 38124 37373 76539 669
Responsiveness 45.6% 48.0% 15.9% 28.3%

What does this all mean?  It seems to me that there is a potential unintended consequence of this administrative change–it could result in a more partisan electorate in off-year races.

We already know from previous work that no-excuse absentee ballots increase turnout, especially in low profile contests (this effect is most pronounced for permanent no-excuse absentee voting). The only remaining administrative barriers to casting a no-excuse absentee ballot are a) actually filling out the paperwork (or online form) to request no-excuse status and b) finding the stamps to mail back the request and the ballot.

Franklin and Cuyahoga have reduced the barriers just about as low as they can go.  What we won’t know until the election is over is whether they unintentionally increased turnout among partisans because these citizens are most responsive to a “push” no-excuse absentee system, or whether these changes simply resort the voters (putting more partisans into the no-excuse pile and more non-affiliated into the election day pile).  And, of course, we won’t know how this may propagate into other contests until the NEXT election, not something election officials want to think about right now!