Voter turnout here in Cleveland has been depressingly low in recent memory. We’re lucky if 30% of eligible voters turn out now, whereas we routinely saw turnouts above 70% back in the 1970’s.
What happened? Why such voter apathy now in Cleveland?
My wife and I have been doing a little anecdotal research on the matter since we moved to Cleveland from Cleveland Heights a decade ago. We live on a street with a lot of vehicular, bicycle and foot traffic into University Circle. We also have a small tree lawn my wife beautifully plants, so she’s out there a lot, tending to her garden.
She’s taken it upon herself to also tend to the voter apathy issue with our passersby. We put up a yard sign this time of year, encouraging people to vote, and she decorates the sidewalk with elaborate chalk art messages on the benefits of voting. We also have a good neighbor who goes out of her way to help people to register to vote, with a yard sign with a QR code link to do so.
We have had yard signs that promote local and statewide issues, but we gave up on candidate specific yard signs as they were too frequently stolen or vandalized with obscenities. So much for free speech.
But my wife has been relentless in pursuing folks to vote, persistently engaging pedestrians and asking them to vote. Some are resistant, and our anecdotal research on their responses is pretty consistent with a theme. “It won’t make a difference,” “Doesn’t matter what I think,” and “Nobody cares, why bother?” are familiar refrains.
One in particular sticks out. It came from one of our city sanitation workers who picks up our trash each week. My wife has become these guys’ buddy, actually. (They are all guys.) She started making masks for the sanitation workers on our route when COVID first hit, and now we leave them Gatorade and an energy bar each week. These guys work hard for a living in all types of weather, so we just want them to know we appreciate what they do that makes our life easier.
Anyhow, when my wife asked this young man if he was going to vote, he smiled and said, “No, the city never does anything for us.”
I think that’s exactly why so few people vote in Cleveland. Some things just don’t change, no matter what the voters want. We remain one of the poorest big cities in the United States, after decades of voting in many different mayors and city councils who then approve an avalanche of lavish taxpayer-funded subsidies to real estate developers and sports franchises. So the region’s well-to-do, especially from the suburbs and city’s swank neighborhoods, have been doing just great, but the poor and middle-class and their neighborhoods in this city, not so much.
The “trickle-down” economic development schemes the city has pursued the last 50 years have failed to move the needle on poverty. Disinvested and hollowed out neighborhoods continue to languish. Underfunded urban public schools still underperform. Living wage jobs easily accessible to residents are hard or impossible to find. The massive growth of the non-profit medical and education institutions has done little to help residents in the host neighborhoods in which they reside.
So, it’s not all that surprising that Cleveland’s residents wonder if their vote matters. Luckily though, with encouragement, some of the passersby my wife engaged with have started to register and vote. And they are quick to let her know enthusiastically when they do. That’s a good sign.
The election coming up next Tuesday is a big one in our state, and an especially big one in the City of Cleveland. Reproductive rights, legalization of recreational marijuana and participatory budgeting in Cleveland are to be decided, along with an important education levy for TRI-C (Cuyahoga County Community College) and a handful of judges.
Low turnouts just cede too much authority to elected officials, who answer preferentially to the region’s power elite (large political donors) but have become increasingly tone-deaf to the challenges of the city’s poor and middle-class residents. It’s time for the people to stand up and remind them who is actually in charge.
Do your part. Vote on November 7.