Besides testing candidates, elections also test the machinery for casting and counting ballots. This year in the battleground state of Ohio, the hot topic is early voting, with Democrats arguing that Republicans are trying to gain an edge by scaling back the hours available for casting in-person absentee ballots.

With early voting set to start Tuesday, a directive by Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, has eliminated in-person absentee voting on weekends, while allowing slightly expanded weekday hours.

Meanwhile, a federal lawsuit filed by the Obama campaign seeks to overturn a legislative ban on in-person absentee voting on the three days before Election Day. So far, a federal judge has ruled in Obama’s favor, but Husted is appealing.

Adding to the confusion was an effort this week by Democrats on the Summit County Board of Elections to reinstate early voting during those three days. It won’t work. The federal courts will settle the issue of whether any in-person absentee voting is permitted during that period, and Husted is empowered under Ohio law to issue a directive to make hours uniform across the state.

Why all the fuss?

A recent report by the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron makes clear the stakes: Early voting is an increasingly popular option in Ohio, both by mail and in person, with trends that favor Democrats.

In 2004, about 11 percent of all ballots were absentee ballots. After that, the rules changed, voters no longer required to state a reason for voting absentee and the process opening up to permit in-person absentee voting at boards of elections or other sites.

In 2010, the past statewide election, 26 percent of the votes were cast by absentee ballot, with the overwhelming majority, 82 percent, cast by mail.

This year, as part of a deal reached between Husted and officials in Cuyahoga County, absentee ballot applications were sent to every voter in the state, a first in Ohio.

Early voting did not increase turnout in presidential elections in Ohio between 2004 and 2008 in a substantial way, less than 1 percentage point. What’s more, in urban counties, turnout declined, with the exception of Franklin County.

So the real fight is over the smaller number of voters who choose to cast their absentee ballots in person.

Still, the Bliss study confirms much of the common political wisdom. The study focused intensely on 2010, when a survey of early voters was conducted.

The study found that Election Day voters favor Republicans, with early voters favoring Democrats. Election Day voters favored John Kasich, 51 percent to 49 percent, while early voters favored Ted Strickland, 53 percent to 47 percent. In terms of party identification, early voters are more likely to be strong Democrats.

The underlying demographics flesh out the reasons. Early voters are more likely to be women, older and have lower levels of income and educational attainment. In terms of geography, early voting is most popular in central and northeastern Ohio.

Those are factors that favor Democrats, although the data did not show significant variations in voting habits by race or ethnicity.

In the fight over in-person absentee balloting, Democrats have been especially concerned that reduced hours will affect minority voters. The Bliss study indicates a more complicated picture.

A recent study the Dayton Daily News, meanwhile, confirmed higher costs associated with early voting, boards of elections spending $122 million in 2008, compared to $67 million in 2004. Husted and other Republicans have frequently made note of the burden early voting imposes on smaller boards of elections.

Besides the cost factor, the rise of early voting has created practical difficulties, especially for political campaigns that lack the resources and organization to start campaigning early. Some operatives have also wondered about “buyer’s remorse,” those casting an early ballot surprised by late developments in the campaign.

Still, the Bliss Institute study points to convenience and accessibility as the major factors behind early voting, making it a popular option. That means Democrats and Republicans will continue to tinker at the margins, looking for advantages, but not risk voters’ wrath by returning to the old rules.

Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at slhoffman@thebeaconjournal.com.