Saving democracy one vote at a time

On a hot Saturday last month outside Garfield Heights High School, a few people in masks were trying to save democracy.

Ricardo and Lanene Jones fill out forms at a Garfield Heights voter registration drive

Ricardo and Lanene Jones fill out forms at a Garfield Heights voter registration drive

Story and photos by Grant Segall

On a hot Saturday last month outside Garfield Heights High School, a few people in masks were trying to save democracy.

Lisa Smith parked in the lot, opened her window, and asked, “Can I get a vote by mail for my son? He’s just getting out of prison.”

“Has he registered?” replied Skip White of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.

Smith suspected not. So White gave her both a registration form and a mail ballot application.

In a presidential election year of contention, contagion and confusion, many groups and individuals, including me, are trying to motivate and guide voters. “More people than ever are helping the community be engaged in the electoral process,” says Paula J. Kampf, one of many west side activists sharing the slogan “Our Neighborhood Votes/Nuestro Vecindario Vota.”

Ohio activists are urging all citizens who’ll be 18 by the Nov. 3 election to make sure they’re properly registered, apply for mail ballots, and tell all their contacts to do likewise as soon as possible.

“Be proactive,” Councilman Richard Trojanski of Maple Heights District 6 said at the Garfield event. “You never know if something could happen.”

Something, for instance, like officials delaying the vote, as they did in Ohio and elsewhere this spring, and as President Trump suggested doing this fall. Or like a politicized post office not handling all the registration cards and mail ballots in time.

Activists are trying to flatten the curve for voting. They’re telling fellow citizens not to wait until the crowd surges near the Oct. 5 registration deadline and the Nov. 3 election.

“You want to make sure the Board of Elections has ample time to properly process your registration as well as your vote-by-mail application,” says Devonta Dickey of Cleveland Votes.

Early this year, a big turnout seemed likely.  New registrations were far outpacing those of early 2016 nationwide, according to the Center for Election Innovation and Research.

Then the coronavirus came, scaring off voters and poll workers, stopping many voter events, and shutting institutions that would normally give out registration cards and mail ballot applications.

Not surprisingly, April’s registrations fell far behind those of April 2016.

“Democracy has suffered because of the pandemic,” says Jennifer Lumpkin of Cleveland Votes.

Garfield Heights Ward 5 Councilman Jason Blake helps with a drive-through event for voter registration

Garfield Heights Ward 5 Councilman Jason Blake helps with a drive-through event for voter registration

Ohio was no exception, according to the secretary of state’s office. From March through July, 163,480 voters signed up here, compared to 251,116 for the same months of the last presidential year.

Rev. Joan Van Becelaere, who leads Ohio’s share of UU the Vote for the Unitarian Universalist Association, says of this year’s turnout, “If we can even come near the past general election’s, we’ll been doing really good.”

Many groups promoting voting are nonpartisan, but it’s no secret that Democrats tend to undervote and Republicans to restrict voting. GOP officials in many states have purged rolls, limited mail ballots, barred former felons, barred public debtors, and joined national figures like Trump in spreading the myth of common voter fraud.

What’s more, a 1982 consent decree has expired since the last presidential election for court oversight of Republican poll watchers, who’d been accused of toting guns and scaring off minority voters. Now the party plans to deploy about 50,000 more.

Activists are fighting back through emails, texts, posts, calls, signs, motorcades, vending boxes, and mask kits that include voting forms.

“Because of the pandemic,” says Our Neighborhood Votes’ Kampf, “everyone’s finding new, creative ways to get involved.”

Many celebrities are promoting the vote, too, such as Barack and Michelle Obama and LeBron James. Even breweries are helping. More than 45 beermakers have joined Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose in a campaign to “Raise a Glass to Democracy.”

LaRose is also doing community events and Facebook Live sessions. He plans public service announcements soon.

Cuyahoga elections workers are distributing and explaining registration cards and mail ballot applications every Thursday through Sept. 17th outside several Cleveland Public Library branches. They’ll appear from 9 a.m. to noon at Memorial-Nottingham. 17109 Lakeshore Blvd.; 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Walz, 7910 Detroit Ave.; 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Rice, 11535 Shaker Blvd.; noon to 3 p.m. at Fleet, 7224 Broadway Ave.; and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at Fulton, 3545 Fulton Rd.

The Cuyahoga board also plans to hire some 4,000 poll workers and more than 300 temporary clerks. Prospects may apply online.

Activists around the country are planning a big late push on Sept. 22nd, National Voter Registration Day.

The rules for registering and voting are still subject to change by lawmakers and judges. For now, Ohioans can deal with registrations by phone or online. But they can get mail ballots only by calling their elections board or the secretary of state’s office, by downloading and printing the application (if they have internet access and a printer), or by writing a letter with the necessary information.

Garfield Heights Ward 4 Councilwoman Shayla Davis greets Lanene Jones at voter registration drive

Garfield Heights Ward 4 Councilwoman Shayla Davis greets Lanene Jones at voter registration drive

Around Labor Day, LaRose’s office plans to mail applications and return envelopes to all registered voters—another reason to register sooner.  The legislature rejected his bid to use federal funds to cover the postage for those return envelopes, as many other states do.

Here are some basics for making your voice heard in Ohio this year:

If you’ll be 18 by Nov. 3, you can already register, check your registration or update it with the Ohio secretary of state’s office, 877-767-6446 ext. 1, or with your county’s election board, including Cuyahoga’s, 216-443-VOTE(8683). You need to update it if you’ve changed your name or address since last voting, registering or signing an elections petition.

If you have not voted, updated, signed an elections petition or returned a card from your elections board in the past six years, you may have been purged from the rolls. In which case, you need to register again.

You’re sure your registration is up to date? Check it anyway.

Once you’re sure you’re sure, apply right away to vote by mail. Follow the instructions on the Ohio or county sites above.

The Cuyahoga board won’t acknowledge your application unless there’s a problem with it. But you can call or go online a few days later to check that it’s been filed. The board will start mailing ballots on Oct. 6. It must receive your application by noon on Oct. 31, and activists are skeptical that you’d get your ballot in time.

If you’d rather vote in person, you don’t have to wait until Election Day. You can do it early at your county’s elections board. The Cuyahoga board is at 2925 Euclid Ave. Summit County’s board is hosting early voters next door at 500 Grant St., Akron, which shares the board’s parking lot.

Early voting will take place between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays from Oct. 6 through 16; 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Oct 19 through 23; 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Sat., Oct. 24, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25, 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Oct. 26-30, 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Sat. Oct 31; and 1 p.m. and 5p.m. on Sunday Nov. 1; and 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 2.

On Election Day, you won’t be allowed to vote at a board, only at a polling place.

The pandemic may prevent churches from the usual busing of “souls to the polls.” But Cleveland Votes plans to give rides to people one at a time to vote early, drop off a mail ballot at the Cuyahoga elections board, or try their luck on Election Day.

The Garfield voter event was led by that city’s Ward 4 Councilwoman Shayla Davis. “As a black woman, I know that people died for me to have this right,” she says. “Democracy is the heart of America, and it’s the citizens’ right to control and guide how we’re governed.”

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