By Grant Segall
Within minutes of becoming a U.S. citizen, Maha Alameh registers to vote.
“I’m excited to get my voice out there,” says the Lebanese emigrant, filling out a registration form early this month while cradling her baby, who in turn is clutching an American flag.
New citizen Dale Sookoo registers too. Having come from Trinidad and Tobago 13 years ago, he’s learned that America is no paradise. But now, he says, “I’m glad I at least have some ability to make some changes.”
After each naturalization ceremony at federal court, volunteers from the League of Women Voters of Greater Cleveland help new citizens fill out registration forms. An 89-year-old from Africa recently signed up. “She’ll be 90 when she votes,” says the League’s Bruce Robinson. “She’s so excited.”
Getting voters registered
The League registers new citizens at naturalization ceremonies year-round. But, as November’s hotly contested elections approach, volunteers from many organizations are expanding registration efforts around the area, trying to bulk up Cleveland’s already strong registration rolls and bolster weak turnouts. They’re helping people fill out registration cards and absentee ballot applications at schools, festivals, outdoor shows, jails, homeless campsites, and elsewhere.
At a recent Wade Oval Wednesday (WOW) show in University Circle, Ganesh Haywood registers for the first time. “I just never bothered before,” she says. But Meredith Hellmer, president of Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates (NOVA), made it easy there, giving her the form and walking her through it.
At a Van Aken District show in Shaker Heights, Gail Rinderknecht fills out a mail-in ballot application with a NOVA volunteer instead of applying online as usual. “Why not save a step?” says Rinderknecht. “It seems like November’s forever away, but it’s not.”
Having registered at his college address and then moved back home, Matt Zeldin learns from NOVA at Van Aken that he has to register again. “I like the civic outreach,” said Zeldin. “I wish more people would vote and get their voice heard.”
In the Nov. 8 election, locals will pick a U.S. senator, an Ohio governor, a Cuyahoga County executive, and other leaders. So far this year, non-partisan group Cleveland Votes has given $150,000 in grants to 23 organizations to support civic engagement efforts, including voter registration and turnout. The grantees include NOVA, the League of Women Voters, and ethnic, racial, faith, fraternal, and social service organizations. (The Land is also a Cleveland Votes civic engagement grantee.)
Registration can be slow work. During that WOW show, Haywood was the only person who signed up. Overall, the League helped 728 voters register or apply for mail ballots this year through Aug. 23, versus 185 in all of 2021 and 229 in all of 2020. NOVA helped 526 voters this year through Aug. 11, versus 694 last year. “We’re on the uptick again after the pandemic, as things open up more,” says NOVA board member Zainab Pixler.
High school and college students can sign up now if they’re U.S. citizens and will turn 18 by November 8. A national project called Democracy Now 2020 boosted turnout at participating colleges to 66% that year. Locally, Baldwin Wallace hit 72% and Case Western Reserve 83%.
NOVA plans to help prisoners this month in Lake and Geauga County jails, says Pixler, and it used to work with prisoners in the Cuyahoga County Jail but has been barred since the pandemic.
NOVA’s lead organizer, Jennifer Carter, has signed up homeless people in campsites. “People need to be engaged,” she says, “and this is a great way to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard.”
Sept. 20 is National Voter Registration Day. NOVA will try to register people that day at two of its frequent hangouts: Cleveland State University and MetroHealth Medical Center. Cleveland Votes and the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections expect to soon announce joint plans for the 20th.
Barriers to voting
Activists say that voters have been confused and frustrated by the many changes in the rules in recent years. In 2020, because of the pandemic, Ohio’s primary was litigated and postponed the night before. This year, it was split between May and August because of a dispute over districting.
In Ohio and elsewhere, many districts are geographically and politically skewed. Experts say voters there feel isolated and useless. Thomas Sutton, head of the Community Research Institute at Baldwin Wallace University, says that Cleveland’s heavy majority of Democrats feel especially irrelevant in a state growing more Republican and therefore getting less attention from national leaders of either party.
Around the country, lawmakers in some states – especially those with Republican-controlled legislatures – have made voting more difficult. Lawmakers have purged voter rolls, restricted mail ballots, expanded identification requirements, and given state legislatures more control over elections, increasing the likelihood of partisan interference. Georgia has even banned volunteers from giving water or food to voters in lines outside the polls.
“We’re going backwards in time,” says Erika Anthony, head of Cleveland Votes. “Why don’t people turn out? Look at all the ways we’re suppressing their ability to do so.”
Republican officials in Ohio and elsewhere have publicized a few investigations of allegedly fraudulent votes, and many have falsely claimed that such votes are common. But Mike West, outreach manager of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, says not to be scared to vote; the board won’t go after anyone for an innocent mistake.
There are many other misunderstandings about voting. Some people who have been incarcerated for a felony don’t realize that they can register to vote after their release. So can prisoners incarcerated for misdemeanors and those charged with but not yet convicted of felonies. Homeless people can register, typically with addresses used for mail or other services.
Some people avoid registering because the rolls are used for jury summons. Then again, so are the rolls of licensed drivers.
Despite all the concerns, registration is popular in Cleveland. In 2020, 86% of the city’s adults were registered, nearly as many as the state’s.
Cleveland’s bigger problem is turnout. The compelling presidential election of 2020 drew about 56% of registered voters in Cleveland versus 70% countywide and 74% statewide. In 2021, about 24% percent of registered Clevelanders helped to choose their first new mayor in 16 years.
A report last year by Cleveland Votes and Policy Matters Ohio said, “Low-propensity Cleveland voters are not apathetic, they just lack information.” In a survey, their most common reasons not to vote were, “I don’t know enough about the candidates,” “I don’t have time,” and “I don’t like the candidates.”
Cleveland Votes’ Anthony blames low turnout partly on Cleveland’s nation-leading poverty and its formerly uncommunicative City Hall. She says turnout may grow now that City Council finally lets citizens speak at regular meetings and that Mayor Justin Bibb is following recommendations from his transition team, on which she served, to engage voters through steps such as participatory budgeting.
After the registration deadline, advocates will try to boost turnout. They’re urging people already to make plans for voting and check out how. Here are some of the choices and rules:
- If you’re a U.S. citizen living in Ohio who’ll be 18 or older by Nov. 8, you can already register or check your status at the Ohio secretary of state’s office, 877-767-6446 ext. 1, or at your county’s elections board. Cuyahoga’s board is at 2925 Euclid Ave., 216-443-VOTE(8683). You can also get a registration form at many public agencies, such as libraries.
- If you’ve already registered, you might need to do it again. That’s the case if you’ve gone six years without voting, registering, signing an elections petition, or returning a card from your election board, or if you’ve more recently changed your name or address. Once the Cuyahoga board hears from you, it’ll need at least a day to update your status online and a couple weeks to send you confirmation.
- There are three ways for registered voters to cast their ballots: by mail, before Election Day at their elections board, or on Election Day at their polling place.
- To vote by mail, you must complete an application. The state recently mailed applications to currently registered voters. If yours hasn’t come, check with the secretary of state’s office or your elections board. People newly registering before Oct. 11 should get applications soon after that date.
- You can’t submit the application online. You can only deliver it in person or stamp and mail it.
- The boards will start mailing actual ballots (to those registered voters who have completed the written application) on Oct. 12. Only you or a near relation can return your completed one. It must be stamped and postmarked by Monday, Nov. 7 or brought to your board by 7:30 p.m. on Elections Day. Ballot weight and postage may vary for different precincts.
- Activists around the country are promoting Vote Early Day on Friday, Oct. 28. But you can vote early in person as soon as Wednesday, Oct. 12. Do it at your county board at these hours: 8. a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays from Oct. 12 through Oct. 28, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday Oct. 29, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday Oct. 31 through Friday Nov. 4, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday Nov. 5; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday Nov. 6; and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 7.
- On Election Day, you can vote only at your polling place. The hours will be 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
- If you vote in person, whether early or on Elections Day, you need to bring identification. Acceptable IDs include a photo ID from the government, a utility bill, a paycheck, or several other kinds of documents with your current name and address. It may not be a Social Security card, passport, insurance card, or anything from your elections board.
In 2020, there were some long lines for early voting and for the primary. But Cuyahoga’s West predicts waits this fall of five minutes or less.
Starting Oct. 29, Rideshare2Vote Aware will offer voters free rides to the Cuyahoga and Summit County boards and to the polling places. Starting Sept. 19, you can make an appointment for a ride by calling 1-888-858-3421 or visiting booking.rides2vote.org.
This piece was originally published in The Land.
Grant Segall is a national-prizewinning reporter who spent 34 years with The Plain Dealer. Besides The Land, his freelance outlets have included The Washington Post, Time, Science, Reuters, The Boston Globe, Pittsburgh Magazine, Philadelphia Magazine, American Education, Black Issues in Higher Education, FreshWater Cleveland, the SHAD (Shaker Area Development) Connection, Shaker Life, and West Life. He has also published fiction in 12 outlets and written the biography “John D. Rockefeller: Anointed With Oil” (Oxford University Press)