CLEVELAND — Cleveland voters—and nonvoters—care a lot.
That’s one of the takeaways from a new poll about Clevelanders’ attitudes toward voting and city government, even if sometimes voter participation doesn’t reflect that.
The poll was funded in part by Cleveland VOTES, a nonpartisan group, and Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit policy research group. HIT Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based polling firm, polled 600 infrequent voters (defined as those who voted “in only one presidential election and no municipal elections”) and 100 unregistered residents of Cleveland.
Roshni Nedungadi, a founding partner at HIT Strategies, said that Clevelanders were “very, very informed and ready to talk about things that were happening in their communities, on the ground, in the city. However, they just weren't making the connection to voting.”
Erika Anthony, cofounder and adviser to Cleveland VOTES, said, “This research could be revered and received as sobering, like, ‘Gosh, we have so much work to do.’ But I think in some way it’s an invitation.”
Anthony said the first message is that voters are not apathetic: “They actually have deep care and concern about the issues that they themselves, their families or their neighborhoods are facing.”
Those issues range from health care to crime and public safety, COVID relief, and more.
So what keeps them from higher participation?
“The polling showed that there's issues with faith in local elected leaders, as well as informational barriers that some of these folks face,” said Daniel Ortiz, outreach director for Policy Matters Ohio.
He said many people know and understand that voting is critical, but it doesn’t always translate to actual voting or getting the transparent, accountable city government they deserve.
Ortiz said while it starts with voting, it’s not just about Election Day, but what happens after.
“I’d encourage folks to find that those groups that are advocating on your issues and to get involved and stay involved,” Ortiz said.
He and Anthony both cited successes for Clevelanders such as getting public comment a City Council meetings for the first time in nearly 100 years and groups that are advocating for participatory budgeting.
“It's really making sure that we make space for more and more people to be at the table,” Ortiz said. “That really gets us to building that equitable democracy.”
Both Ortiz and Anthony emphasized some of the informational and structural barriers to voting.
Ortiz, for example, talked about some of the difficulties of navigating websites and where to find a sample ballot, or even a polling location, even for people who regularly vote.
“So making sure that we're all helping to send folks to the right place to vote, letting people know that there are options from voting absentee in-person to voting absentee by mail,” Ortiz said. “There's so many ways to vote, but making sure that we're getting that information out there and that we're giving folks clarity on all their choices and how they could participate in elections is vitally important.”
Anthony emphasized that while every election is “incredibly important,” what happens between election cycles is too.
“I think it's really important that folks have agency and understanding that there are a multitude of ways that you can plug in and be civically engaged in your community,” Anthony said. “And I think there's no judgment on either side, right? So if your form of activism or your form of engagement is protesting, you know, lobbying to your local elected officials, writing letters, supporting a candidate, I mean, there is a myriad of different ways that folks can get engaged.”
Other ways, for those who are more introverted, might include letter-writing or phone and text banking.
Anthony said that it’s also critical to make sure people have the information they need about candidates and issues, as well as making sure in the future that there aren’t structural barriers to voter participation. That can include everything from translations for people who speak other languages, those who have hearing or sight impairments, or who don’t have the same access to digital services, social media or broadband, what Anthony called “digital redlining.”
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