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The Treaty of Cuyahoga: Compromise on Absentee Ballots Will Yield Interesting Data

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[Image courtesy of protocol411]

Last week, I wrote about the looming Battle of Cuyahoga, where a dispute over absentee ballot applications pitted Ohio Secretary of Jon Husted against Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald.

Late last week, the two men met and reached a compromise: Cuyahoga agreed not to defy the state and mail absentee ballot applications in 2011, while the state agreed to allow all Ohio counties to mail such applications in advance of 2012.

The compromise defuses the immediate controversy, but it also will allow the election community in Ohio and across the nation to evaluate a few key questions about absentee ballots.

In his statement on the agreement, FitzGerald said that about half of Cuyahoga voters use absentee ballots and alleviate long lines at the polls. Under the agreement, it will be interesting to see if Cuyahoga voters continue their high rate of absentee ballot usage and if this number increases as a result of the application mailings.

Husted, on the other hand, expressed satisfaction that all Ohio counties would follow the same rules and that "voters in smaller counties will have the same conveniences as voters in larger counties." As we enter 2012, we will be able to measure the rates at which all counties cast absentee ballots and see if this idea of leveling the absentee playing field is borne out in 2012.

Finally, a point that neither FitzGerald nor Husted mentioned but which will be important is an assessment of whether unsolicited applications are actually worth the cost. My colleague Charles Stewart of MIT commented to me privately after the original blog post that one possible justification for the ban on absentee ballot mailing was that they didn't work - more specifically, that mailing and processing unsolicited applications didn't yield a sufficient return in the form of absentee ballots to justify the cost. Hopefully the state and the counties will collect the appropriate data to determine if this is actually the case.

In conclusion, the Treaty of Cuyahoga is a promising development on several levels: first, it defuses a controversy that threatened to grip Ohio for weeks; second, it demonstrates that state and local officials can work together in a bipartisan manner; and best of all, it promises to yield valuable data that can illuminate best practices not just for the Buckeye State but for election officials across the country.

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