Door To Door: The Disappearing Cleveland Voter

A sign encouraging voting is posted on a tree lawn in Cleveland's Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.
A sign encouraging voting is posted on a tree lawn in Cleveland's Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. [Nick Castele / ideastream]

Analysis

Ten thousand, four hundred thirty-nine voters. Or, rather, negative 10,439 voters.

That was the difference between Cleveland’s 2016 vote totals and its numbers in 2020. While Ohio celebrated a statewide spike in turnout this presidential election year, Cleveland saw a slump.

Why did fewer people show up this time? Because Cleveland is such a heavily Democratic town, I posed that question after the election to local Democratic leaders. Here’s how they explained it:

COVID-19’s waves of isolation and unemployment disrupted the lives of potential voters who were living on the edge. These are voters who, because of the day-to-day challenges of just surviving, need extra help getting out to vote.

That help was in short supply locally, they said. This year, Joe Biden didn’t field a robust “ground game” of door-knocking canvassers, a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. (And, I can’t help but ask, an acknowledgement that a Democrat doesn’t need Ohio to rack up 270 electoral votes?)

Some suggested it was the fact that Cuyahoga County couldn’t collect absentee ballots beyond its one dropbox and a nearby drop-off site. Or maybe it was population decline.

After I shared local election results data on Twitter, a bevy of politically engaged tweeps proposed their own explanations. I’d sum up some of those responses this way: Perhaps the political culture has grown anemic in a city where local incumbents can float to reelection with 24 percent turnout, as they did in 2017.

After all, this year Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley, whose office holds tremendous power over people’s lives and liberties, won a second term unopposed.

Local nonpartisan, nonprofit groups weren’t sitting on their hands, however. The Young Latino Network tried to reach people in the city’s Clark-Fulton neighborhood. Plus, volunteers distributed masks and absentee voting information to tens of thousands of Clevelanders this summer.

Cleveland VOTES was also on the scene, trying to help residents who may have been unfamiliar with voting by mail during the pandemic — or even skeptical of it, co-founder Erika Anthony said.

“We had such a short window to not only communicate the change, but then also educate our fellow residents on what does it mean, and how do you actually go about casting your ballot from home,” she said, “when you have things like not having a printer, not having stamps.”

Anthony was new to the process, too. She typically votes in person, she said, recalling trips to the polls with her parents when she was a child. She suspects other Cleveland voters, particularly African Americans, may have felt the same.

“There was a time when Black people could not vote,” Anthony said. “And there is something to be said about physically going down to that polling location, particularly for elderly Black people.”

When prosecutors announced they’d indicted two right-wing hoax artists for alleged robocalls meant to scare Black voters away from absentee balloting, something clicked for Anthony. A partner organization had reported hearing from voters who received similar messages, she said.

The dip in turnout affected Biden’s overall numbers. Just look at Cleveland’s Ward 1, which includes the Lee-Harvard neighborhood, home to many older African American voters.

Out of more than 10,000 Ward 1 voters, just 373 cast ballots for Trump. That was actually a 170-vote improvement for the president over his 2016 numbers.

And Biden? He won 9,689 votes — a 1,292-vote decrease from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 numbers.

That didn’t alter Cleveland’s identity as a strongly Democratic city. Biden still won every single ward in town.

But the changes did add up. From 2016 to today, Trump improved his standing in Cleveland by 5,294 votes. And Biden fell 12,129 votes short of Clinton.

After Trump’s 2016 win shocked many professional political commentators, pundits said reporters should spend more time listening to his supporters. I think there’s value in that. We should listen to Biden voters, too.

We also ought to spend time hearing from a different group of people: those who, for one reason or another, didn’t cast a ballot in 2020. As Anthony told me, this isn’t a short-term project.

“I’m not disappointed, which may sound odd,” she said. “I’m not disappointed in the turnout, because this is a long game. And I would prefer to have conversations about, okay, so this is not a number that we accept, right? And what do we need to learn, and then how do we need to build?”

So what held back Cleveland’s turnout? All of the above, probably. An in-person campaign, flush with volunteers, banging on doors from West Park to Collinwood could make a difference next time.

But beyond the tactical questions is a philosophical one, one with ramifications for the 2021 municipal races: When candidates for judge, or council member or mayor come around asking for votes next year, will people feel that their decisions matter?

Answering that question could be the real key to sending voters to the polls.

Nick Castele’s “Door To Door” column appears monthly in Noon(ish) and online at ideastream.org.

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