After Cleveland Voter Turnout Sags in 2020, Democrats Weigh What's Next
When Ohio’s county elections boards wrapped up the unofficial vote tallies Nov. 4, Secretary of State Frank LaRose blasted out a news release celebrating the state’s record-breaking turnout.
But the mood was more somber in Cleveland, where it’s likely that fewer people voted than in 2016, 2012, 2008 or 2004.
The coronavirus pandemic, an economic crash, years of poverty and population decline all weighed down Cleveland’s turnout, Democratic activists and officeholders said last week. And local Democrats bore that burden, they said, without meaningful on-the-ground help from the Biden campaign.
“You’ve got people who feel—a lot of people who feel—that voting doesn’t make a difference, that it’s not going to improve my life in any way. It’s not going to hurt my life in any way,” said Ward 5 Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland, who represents the city’s lowest-income neighborhood. “In order to combat that, you need people on the ground.”
But no army of campaign staff and volunteers arrived to knock on doors and help convince voters to cast their ballots. Instead, Democrats sought socially distant ways to get out the vote amid the pandemic: making phone calls, texting and sending postcards.
In the end, more than 135,000 Clevelanders cast ballots, according to the unofficial count, a decline of 10,000 votes from 2016’s unofficial numbers.
That number will grow once the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections adds provisional ballots and late-arriving absentees to the count. But even in the unlikely event that every provisional ballot is valid and every outstanding absentee arrives in the mail, Cleveland’s vote total will fall short of the official canvass from the past few presidential races.
Coronavirus Upends Campaigning
Shontel Brown, the chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, said local Democrats did the best they could to turn out voters in the face of the pandemic and without national resources. Those headwinds weren’t blowing against the party in past elections in Ohio, she said.
“We had higher population at the time, we were not the poorest city in the nation, and weren’t battling against the pandemic. And in 2008, I believe, we also had Golden Week,” Brown said, referring to a week, discontinued by Republican lawmakers in 2014, in which the voter registration period overlapped with early voting.
Other forces may have held Cleveland voters back, too, she said. There was President Donald Trump’s groundless attack on the security of mail-in voting, along with voters’ own suspicions about the process, Brown said. And then there were the robocalls, allegedly made by two now-indicted right-wing hoaxers, telling Black voters in Cleveland and East Cleveland not to cast ballots by mail.
Over all of this hung the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans knocked on voters’ doors wearing masks, but Democrats eschewed most in-person campaigning. Plus, the pandemic disrupted people’s daily lives and threw them into financial uncertainty.
“People are hungry. People have lost jobs, or they were furloughed, or their hours were cut, so people were struggling financially,” Phyllis Cleveland said. “So the election, particularly, wasn’t that high on their list of things they needed to do day-to-day.”
Pandemic restrictions also made it hard to reach senior citizens living in high-rise apartments, she said. Seniors often turn out to vote in high numbers but are especially vulnerable to the virus.
In East Cleveland, Councilman Nathaniel Martin said he slipped campaign literature under the doors of seniors’ apartments. Martin said he felt positive about the results of that work, although he hadn’t delved deeply into the voting numbers.
“They were not so excited about Biden like they were Obama,” he said, “but the difference is they knew they wanted to get rid of Donald Trump.”
Building A New Turnout Operation
In recent interviews, local Democrats spoke with nostalgia about Barack Obama’s campaign, which worked to get Black Ohioans to the polls and won the Buckeye State twice. Phyllis Cleveland recalled volunteers traveling to Northeast Ohio from around the country to help get out the vote.
“It was a phenomenal time. Of course it’s going to be hard to duplicate that excitement and energy because of Obama as a candidate,” she said. “I remember a young white woman from Idaho who came here to volunteer in Ward 5 in Cleveland.”
But after Democrats lost Ohio to Trump by 8 points in 2016 and lost most statewide races in 2018, the national party looked elsewhere for help locking down the presidency. And it worked: Biden is the president-elect, the first since John F. Kennedy to clinch the Electoral College without Ohio.
Biden did win more votes in Cuyahoga County than 2016 Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton did, although those weren’t enough to erode Trump’s margin of victory in Ohio.
“There was not a true ground game here. There was not a true campaign,” said Rebecca Maurer, the local Democratic leader for Cleveland’s Ward 12. “We didn’t have a field office. We didn’t have the number of field organizers that we usually have for a presidential campaign.”
In the absence of that investment, Maurer and other local Democratic ward club leaders tried to take matters into their own hands. They organized what they called the “Amazing Ballot Race,” leaving flyers at voters’ doors encouraging them to submit the absentee ballots they’d requested.
The ward clubs could celebrate some success. In Ward 17, which includes the city’s West Park neighborhood, unofficial turnout numbers stood at 74 percent, the highest figure in Cleveland.
But demographics likely played a role, too. West Park is majority white, full of middle-class homeowners, and often posts the city’s highest turnout figures. By race and economics, it resembles higher-turnout suburbs to the west.
Nora Kelley, who is active in the Ward 17 Democratic Club, acknowledged that the neighborhood’s relatively higher incomes were likely a factor in the turnout numbers.
Getting more people to vote in Cleveland will require ongoing work, she said. In her view, the party must make a convincing case that its policies will make working people’s lives better, such as fighting for COVID-19 relief and a higher minimum wage.
“Part of the challenge in the city is making sure that people understand that the decisions that elected leaders are making can make an improvement in their lives,” Kelley said. “And I think there is, quite frankly, honestly, a high level of distrust, for good reason, a lot of times.”
Decline In Registered Voters
Northeast Ohio has long been Democrats’ heavyweight fighter in the tussle to win statewide races. But, as rural and Appalachian areas become even more Republican, the urban northeast is losing its heft. In 2008, Cuyahoga County had 1.1 million registered voters. This year, that number is about 889,000.
The purging from the rolls of infrequent voters, the deceased and those who have moved plays some part in that decline. At the same time, census estimates from the American Community Survey indicate plenty of voting-age people just aren’t showing up at the polls.
Take the city of Cleveland, for instance. In 2012, about 58 percent of the city’s voting-age population cast ballots. This year, if all provisional and outstanding absentee ballots are counted, that number will be 50 percent.
Political organizers in Ohio could look to Georgia for inspiration, said Brian Siggers, president of the Northeast Ohio Young Black Democrats. There, voters in the Atlanta metro area gave Biden an edge over Trump with help from a years-long voter registration effort led by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
“I think a key indicator of what could be in Ohio is if you see what’s going on in Georgia, and what Stacey Abrams and her team, the great organizers out there were able to do,” Siggers said. “I think a similar playbook could be replicated here in Ohio.
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