CINCINNATI -- Imagine a group so powerful they could unseat local judges, legalize marijuana, raise taxes and create an urban bike trail in Cincinnati simply by showing up to vote on Nov. 3.
But chances are they won’t.
Hamilton County’s youngest voters are also the least interested, a WCPO analysis of voting records shows.
Millennial voters, ages 18-34, have the second biggest voting bloc behind only baby boomers. They also had the smallest turnout in recent elections.
These millennial voters make up 30.2 percent of the county’s voter registration list (which includes 540,618 active and inactive voters). Yet just over one-fifth of them cast a ballot in the 2014 general election and only 2.7 percent voted in that year’s primary.
And turnout in 2013 was even worse, despite a spirited race for Cincinnati's mayor.
“In the last few elections, voter turnout has been abysmal,” said Tim Burke, chairman of Hamilton County Board of Elections. “We all ought to be very concerned about that.”
In fact, the 2013 general election turnout for voters of all ages was roughly 30 percent, Burke said. This is the lowest turnout in at least 23 years and “may go back even further than that,” he said.
Of particular concern is the seeming lack of interest by the county’s youngest voters. As baby boomers age, their bloc will shrink. Unless millennials start showing up at the polls, voter turnout could stay low or dip even lower.
“The young voters, the millennials, are of a particular concern,” Burke said.
So what does that mean for the 2015 election, and the state and local issues that will pass or fail on Nov. 3?
For the tax levy to support Cincinnati parks, Mayor John Cranley believes the issue has such broad appeal that lackluster millennial turnout will not matter.
“If we weren’t selling apple pie, we never would have done it this year because we know it’s going to be a very conservative, low turnout,” Cranley said. “There’s going to be no young people voting.”
Brad Johnson, chair of College Republicans at the University of Cincinnati, said young people are "definitely not" interested in local politics.
Are they interested in national politics? "They are half interested and half not.”
Cranley remembers having his first political argument with his Republican father when he wanted to vote for Bill Clinton for president in 1992.
“You don’t argue about who the mayor is, you argue about the big national issues," he said. "I think young people are inherently more likely to be drawn to national issues than local issues. Interest in local issues tends to increase as you settle down and focus on your neighborhood and your family."
Although the park issue has widespread support from Democrats and Independents, and while Cranley predicts an easy win, he is still worried about low turnout.
“If this was on the ballot next year we would win 75 to 25 percent, easily,” he said. “Because of the fear of low turnout, we will be running a very aggressive campaign all the way to the finish.”
This young vote is crucial to legalizing marijuana in Ohio, said Ian James, executive director of ResponsibleOhio, who is leading the ballot issue.
While millennials are the most “energized and excited about the issue,” they also need nudging to actually cast their ballots. That’s why he heavily invested in an early voting campaign, social media reminders and Facebook badges.
“If you want marijuana legalization, then you’ve got to vote. If you don’t vote, then all you’re doing is telling me that you like this, but you’re not willing to do anything about it,” James said. “That’s not going to help us legalize marijuana.”
It is a risky move to place any issue on the ballot in an off-year election because so few voters in Hamilton County show up, especially young voters.
WCPO's analysis showed that 82.7 percent of the county’s registered voters cast ballots in the 2012 election, when President Barack Obama won a second term.
"Younger voters are moved by what is novel and exciting more than older voters," said Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University.
Although 68.5 percent of millennials voted in 2012, they were still the lowest-voting generation. Nearly 90 percent of baby boomers voted that year.
A year later, in 2013, total voter turnout had dropped to 32.4 percent. Again, millennials had the lowest turnout, with only 11.2 percent voting.
Chris Dalton, a senior political science major at UC, believes that millennials become more interested in voting, and local issues, as they get older.
“Younger voters are less inclined to vote, especially in an off year when turnout is way, way down,” Beck said.
Does legalized marijuana excite millennials to vote this year?
That could be the big question.
While this generation may widely support legal pot, they may not be passionate enough about it to cast their ballot on a rainy day or remember to mail in early ballots.
“They are interested in marijuana, but not passionate about it,” Beck said. “If I were pushing to legalize marijuana, if I were running the campaign, I’d rather it be on the ballot in 2016 than in 2015.”
“If it was 2016, it would pass easily," he said. "But since its 2015 I think it’s a little iffy."
Are Millennials Excited Enough to Vote?
When James arrives on a college campus, students rush to get photos with “Buddie,” ResponsibleOhio’s hokey, well-muscled pot bud mascot.
He spots pro-pot signs in dorm windows and marijuana stickers on laptops. In the past month, he’s been interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine and appeared on the “The Late Show with Steven Colbert.”
“There is a pent-up interest and desire for marijuana that is under the surface,” James said. “We see it in polling. The intensity level is really really high … Folks are really keyed in on this.”
He believes that passionate support for legalized pot will draw people to the polls. In Colorado and Washington, he said more people voted for pot than for the president in 2012.
“I’ve worked in issue campaigns for 30 some odd years and I’ve never had people know as much in depth about a ballot issue as they do about this.”
James could not say how many millennial votes are needed in order to legalize marijuana, but expected to know that number soon.
“I don’t know if they’re going to be a point or two points of the overall process,” he said. “But if this comes down to a 51 to 49 split, then there’s your winning margin.”
James predicts a 53 to 47 percent winning margin.
“I’m literally 95 percent confident that we’re going to win,” he said.
But Burke, of Hamilton County’s election board, said early signs are not pointing to massive voter turnout.
As of Oct. 6, one month from the election, 5,932 people had requested early absentee voting ballot applications.
In 2013, which he notes is a similar off-year election, 5,484 applications had been requested with exactly a month to go.
While this is "mildly encouraging,” Burke said, it doesn’t compare to the widespread interest in the 2011 election, when a polarizing issue to limit collective bargaining for Ohio public employees was on the ballot.
That year, 22,770 people had requested early voting applications, by exactly one month before the election.
“There’s a big difference,” Burke said. “This shows what a major statewide issue can do with voters. Compared to what issue 3 (marijuana plan) so far is doing.”
But Burke stopped short of offering a prediction on the marijuana vote.
“We’ll see,” he said.