Over the summer, large groups of minorities took to the streets throughout the country to voice their discontent over what America had become.
They were tired of violence. They were tired of oppression. They were tired of being underrepresented.
Those movements, many loosely associated with Black Lives Matter, cooled down locally since those early days protesting the police-involved deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. It remains to be seen if that passion died out entirely or whether it simmered into a new voting block into Tuesday’s general election.
“What we witnessed with the protests over the summer were people being very upset about an incident,” said Carla Thompson, Lima’s councilor for the 3rd Ward. “Then people realized the violent incidents continue to happen and people continue to be oppressed, that there was more violence to overcome and more oppression to overcome. Eventually, people get tired and wanted to tune out.”
Thompson was involved with get-out-the-vote efforts in Lima. She acknowledged she got “discouraged sometimes” when she found people who were “young, healthy, reasonably intelligent and completely disinterested in voting.”
Dr. Willie Heggins, executive director of Heir Force Community School and part of the Committee of Racial Injustice and Reform, led the “Every Vote Counts in Lima” campaign. His group helped bring back hundreds of voters who’d fallen out of the rolls from inaction.
“We had many people that had not voted since the first Obama election, which was literally 12 years ago,” Heggins said. “By nature of them not being in the voting cycle over an eight-year period of time, their lack of voting over a two-president span, they were pulled out of the system.”
There are 4,391 new voters in Allen County this year who didn’t vote in the 2016 elections. Of those, 50.4% are 25 or older, and 28.8% are older than 40. Now that they’re registered to vote, the next step is getting them to cast a vote by 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The vote matters
“I talked to one or two people who just believed the whole system was rigged, that their vote doesn’t matter, that the wealth secretly decide who is going to be elected before we even do anything,” Thompson said.
That’s an honest reaction to a political system that often doesn’t reflect a voter’s personal values and hasn’t historically helped.
“When you’re talking about some of the underrepresented groups, they feel a disconnection from society,” said Robert Carrothers, a sociology professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada. “There’s a question as to whether anyone cares about what happens in your community.”
The elections certainly aren’t fixed, said Michelle Wilcox, director of the Auglaize County Board of Elections and president of the Ohio Association of Election Officials. She points to the intense electronic security surrounding ballots, the requirement for a Democrat and Republican to both be present when ballots are handled and the felony punishments for falsifying a vote as proof people in her line of work take your vote seriously.
“When someone says to me, ‘Well, that ballot’s probably just going in the trash,’ I don’t think they realize the work and the security we have to go through to make sure this election is safe and secure,” Wilcox said.
She noted a Pew study found the percentage of votes affected by fraud is at 0.0004%, or “your chance of getting struck by lightning is greater than voter fraud,” she said.
“We wanted people to understand voting was their fundamental right,” Heggins said. “You need to be continuously an active participant in that process.”
Former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican who once oversaw elections as the secretary of state, recalled how closely Jimmy Carter was elected in the state. He said one vote in each polling place in 1976 could’ve swayed the vote.
“I would just stress that a lot of these races are going to be extremely close, and Ohio could be pivotal to the presidential election,” Taft said.
Thompson is a living example of why individual votes matter. She won her council race by 22 votes; the person she beat won his race by five votes the election before.
“Honestly, if your vote didn’t matter, people wouldn’t work so hard to keep it from you,” she said.
The social unrest over the summer proves the country is overdue for some difficult conversations on class and race, said Patrick Carroll, a sociology professor at Ohio State University’s Lima branch campus since 2007.
“The issue of trust is very tenuous,” Carroll said. “If you’re looking back in history and you’re someone from underrepresented groups, you’re going to ask, ‘Why should I believe that this government has my best interests in mind?’”
People weren’t marching necessarily demanding immediate action. They just wanted to be heard, Carrothers said.
“A lot of what you heard out of the Black Lives Matter movement was calls for political candidates to pay attention and recognize their true needs,” Carroll said. “It’s not just saying, ‘You’re Democrats, so you’re going to vote for us either way.’ It’s about seeing what’s happening in communities and hearing what they say they need to see happen.”
It can be difficult to have those conversations since they make people uncomfortable, especially since people’s experiences can be so different.
“There’s a recognition that people should all have an equal opportunity, but that does nothing to acknowledge the difference in where you’re starting and your outcomes,” Carroll said.
That’s where informed voting can help, said U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who previously was in charge of Ohio’s elections as secretary of state.
“I think people feel powerless too often in this country,” Brown said. “It’s a very complicated country where elected officials too often don’t do what they’ve promised to do. … I think the best antidote is always to vote in large numbers.”
Carroll considers the conversation a “growing pain” for the country.
“Sometimes the greatest growth, the greatest lessons come from those uncomfortable and enduring fights,” he said.
Learning from elections
Heggins’ goal was to get as much of the entire community — Black, white and otherwise — back on the voting rolls as possible. Volunteers signed back up people who hadn’t voted in two presidential elections. They also signed up convicted felons who’d served their sentences, as Ohio is one of the few states allowing that.
The key is to get people involved in the decisions that affect their lives, from local elections up through state and federal races. He said “Every Vote Counts in Lima” was truly a nonpartisan group with no agenda, other than to educator people about their right to vote. That will help them continue to be a “solution-oriented group, focusing on efforts to enhance what we’re doing in the City of Lima, in whatever capacity we can.”
“Even if they felt as if their vote didn’t count in the past, we’re empowering them toward the importance of voting in the present day,” Heggins said.
The responsibility to vote comes with a responsibility to educate yourself on what’s on the ballot, Thompson said.
“The sea of misinformation is kind of the biggest thing we need to fight when it comes to getting people to vote,” she said. “Also, we need to get people to think critically, something we’ve talked about a lot in the teaching field.
“Our world comes to us in sound bites, and we’ve decided we like it that way. We’re not comparing sources, not looking for the truth, not digging a little deeper for the meaning behind whatever we’re seeing.”
Wilcox agreed, noting the wild conspiracy theories and memes she’s seen.
“Disinformation is a bigger threat to us than our foreign adversaries,” she said. “They’re trying to undermine our election, and you can stop them.”