CINCINNATI -- Voters may not be blazing any trails in Hamilton County ahead of Tuesday's pivotal primary election — only 2 percent of registered voters have cast absentee ballots thus far — but if comparing 2016 to the last two presidential cycles, counts are falling somewhere in between. And the excitement may only be building.
More than 24,000 voters had cast absentee or in-person early ballots by close of polls Thursday, a number that's seen an uptick as the countdown to March 15 neared single digits. While that's pacing ahead of 2012 by more than 10,000 votes, the tally falls way short of 2008, when counts were more than twice as high.
While that's not all that surprising considering enthusiasm levels varied widely between President Barack Obama's run for a first and second term — and given all that's led up to Ohio this year — it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, either.
In 2008, the Hamilton County Board of Elections mailed out an early vote application to everyone registered in the county, a practice that's now prohibited by state law.
Only the Secretary of State can send a form like that now, and only with authorization from the state Legislature. Tim Burke, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Elections, said Jon A. Husted has been OK'd to do that for the general election in November — but not the primary this year.
In 2008, nearly 50,000 people requested early ballots in Hamilton County. More than 40,000 were returned. In 2016, the number tops 21,000. More than 13,000 returns had been processed by Thursday in the Republican race between Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Marco Rubio and the Democratic contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
"That gives you a sense of what a difference that (mailing) made," Burke said. "The one other statistic I find interesting, if you remember what the lines had looked like at the Board of Elections in '08 in particular, and compared to that with this year, we're almost at the same number,” he said. "But it's running way ahead of four years ago at this time (2,597 versus 868).
"I don't think there's any question about the fact there's more excitement — on both sides," he added. "This is a more exciting primary than we had four years ago. Four years ago was no primary on the Democratic side at all, and (Mitt) Romney was pretty much the Republican nominee by this point. There's a lot going in Ohio on the Republican side, but also on the Democratic side. For those who are anxious to try and stop Trump, it looks like Ohio has become their key to doing that. On the Democratic side, we've had Bill Clinton in stumping for his wife. We've had Cecile Richards, head of Planned Parenthood, in (Friday) stumping for Hillary. I'm a little surprised we've not seen either a big-name surrogate or Sanders himself in Hamilton County. But they're going to spend most of their time in northeast Ohio, where the bulk of the Democratic vote is in the state."
Despite the excitement, some say early voting counts have also been influenced by ranks of undecided voters.
Sherry Poland, director of elections, Hamilton County Board of Elections, says there's usually an uptick closer to Election Day. But this time around, she said, voters seemed to be "waiting for the results of primaries and caucuses in other states before casting their ballot."
"When the absentee voting period first began, numbers were lower than we expected," Poland said. "But we've seen a jump, and that might be why we're now starting to see the increase."
Overall, the BOE is predicting a 40-45 percent turnout, which would match 2008.
On the Democratic side, Burke thinks most have made up their minds, although the difference in ballots cast by party affiliation thus far is marginal. Younger voters here, too, may not turn out with the same force for Sanders as they did for Obama eight years ago, he said.
"It's hard to tell,” Burke said. “Clearly, from what we're seeing across the country, there's a good deal of interest among some young voters in Bernie, and that's terrific, but I'm concerned that, so far, the young voters are not voting in the same percentages as they were certainly in the first Obama campaign.
"I think on the Republican side, there may be some change going on because of all the attack ads out there right now, in the effort to try and stop The Donald," Burke added. "How successful that's going to be remains to be seen."
Alex Triantafilou, Hamilton County GOP chairman, agreed that early voting turnout might be down because voters are having trouble making up their mind on a presidential candidate.
"It’s funny, when I do gatherings of Republicans, probably since July of last year, I’ve asked the same question: 'Have you made up your mind about who you're supporting for president?'" Triantafilou said. "Still, less than half of the room has."
Kasich gets a lot of support in Hamilton County, Triantafilou said. "There’s still some undecided voters out there. No question."
Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel, a Republican, said he still hasn't decided whom he'll support on March 15. He's waiting to see who will be on the ballot by the time the Ohio primary roles around.
The commission's other sitting Republican, Dennis Deters, said he's also holding out until Tuesday to pick his candidate.
"I’m going to wait until we get to the primary," Deters said. "I’m on the ballot in November — I’ll support the Republican nominee."
Amanda Seitz contributed to this report.