In richly diverse conversation, Ohioans share desire for unity

U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)

Karen Smith choked on tears when she tried to explain the year leading up to the 2020 presidential election.

“My life became a train wreck, honestly,” Smith said.

She lost a wedding, her job and in-person medical appointments she depends on because of the pandemic.

She can’t talk to her “ultra conservative” family about anything political, even how she no longer earns enough to pay for her old insurance plan that covered a $10,000 medication.

And on top of everything, she’s afraid to post anything with a political slant on social media for fear she’ll be attacked or labeled with her own name — Karen — which in 2020 has become a national symbol for obnoxious, often racist, privileged white women who demand things at the expense of others.

“It’s been humbling,” Smith told a group of strangers from Central Ohio during a Your Voice Ohio (YVO) Zoom meeting Oct. 6.

A month before election day, Ohioans are weary. 

The pandemic. The political divisions. The difficulty sorting fact from fiction as their country seems to teeter on the edge of history, uncertain if it will muddle on largely as it was, or evolve, for better or for worse.

That’s motivated some voters, confused others and left many so frustrated they may not even vote.

Two university students in the YVO group, neither of whom wanted to be identified in this article, both crave change — largely because of racism and the fight for social justice.

A 22-year-old college student from Powell, who is Black, said she was too young to vote in 2016, but the election changed her world and how she saw herself in it.

“The day after Trump was elected, I had people coming up to me who I thought were my friends and saying, ‘go back to your country,’ ‘I hope you have your passport on you’,” she said. “I was shocked.”

A fourth-year Ohio State University student, who is white, said his extended family is “very right wing” and “pro-Trump,” yet he and almost all of his friends hold opposing views.

The student, who is in an interracial relationship, said “it’s very difficult trying to reconcile these people are my family and I love them but I’m against what they believe in,” particularly after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and all that’s come after.

“I don’t see a future if the incumbent president is elected,” he said. 

Yet deciding who to vote for is more complicated for others.

Amy Pache, a chauffeur from the Dublin area, voted for Barack Obama and then flipped parties in 2016 and voted for Donald Trump

“I considered both of them outsiders and agreed more than I disagreed with their platforms,” she said.

Pache, who is white, is also in an interracial relationship.

“Black Lives Matter, Antifa and the riots and conflict and the murder rate and all of that is on my mind,” Pache said. 

At the same time, Pache wants to maintain strong police departments — perhaps with better training — and lift pandemic restrictions to help so many friends who have been ruined financially by COVID-19.

“I care about how much milk costs, how much is gas,” Pache said, wondering why the media doesn’t ask the candidates about how their policies will impact ordinary Americans.

“I don’t have stocks… I don’t care about stocks… I don’t have 22 zeroes behind the numbers in my bank account,” she said.

Anthony Dorman felt the same disconnect between candidates and Americans like himself.

Dorman is a general laborer who lives in the Bottoms, a Columbus neighborhood west of downtown. It earned its nickname because of its low-lying topography, but for decades the name also reflected many of the people who lived in the Bottoms since they were stuck on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

Dorman voted for Obama but didn’t vote for either Trump or Hillary Clinton in the last election, even though he leans Republican.

“I would like to see somebody normal, that’s real, that says I growed up in this small town,” Dorman said. 

Instead, Dorman said he sees politics as nothing but a useless game played by Democrats and Republicans, but particularly by Trump.

“It’s hopeless, my friends don’t even want to vote” because the country will still have the same problems no matter who is in office, he said.

Dorman sees the presidency much like he sees COVID-19.

He doesn’t know anyone who’s fallen ill with COVID-19. And he doesn’t have any ancestors who have died in previous pandemics.

“Covid is not a reality to me, just like the president,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who he is going to be. There is no effect in my daily life.”

Amanda Garrett is a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal and can be emailed at [email protected].

Want to volunteer for a future dialogue and receive $125 for two hours? Register at the Your Voice Ohio Election 2020 website.

About this project

This is one in a series of stories on issues Ohioans say are most important in this election year. More than 50 news outlets are collaborating in the project under the umbrella of Your Voice Ohio, the nation’s largest sustained, statewide news media collaborative. In five years, Your Voice Ohio has brought more than 100 journalists together with more than 1,300 Ohioans for discussions on addiction, the economy and elections. Your Voice Ohio is managed and coordinated by the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes, a nonpartisan, nonprofit civic engagement organization. The project is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund and Facebook. The Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes designs and facilitates the dialogues and digital forums. Retired Akron Beacon Journal managing editor Doug Oplinger directs the media work and can be reached at [email protected].

Five Ohios

For the Your Voice Ohio 2020 Election listening project, the state’s 88 counties were divided into five regions identified by John Green, emeritus director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron, as having political and demographic similarities.

How participants were selected

Six people were recruited to participate with three journalists in each regional dialogue designed and facilitated by Kyle Bozentko and Sarah Atwood from the Jefferson Center for New Democratic Processes, a St. Paul-based non-partisan, non-profit research organization.

There was an attempt to make each dialogue demographically representative, though that was problematic in some regions, particularly in the Southeast where there were broadband challenges. Overall, the dialogues were representative of Ohio, based on Census data obtained by former Akron Beacon Journal data reporter David Knox.

A pool of about 1,000 volunteers was created through invitations published by Ohio news outlets and from advertisements on social media. To encourage a diverse group of volunteers, $125 was offered to those who answered basic demographic questions, participated in a test call, and then completed the two-hour online dialogue.

For the conversations, participants were granted anonymity with the understanding that what they said could be used in news stories without their names. They were asked afterward if they were willing to be quoted by name and participate in a follow-up conversation with a reporter. Most agreed.

Participating journalists were recruited from the more than 50 Your Voice Ohio news outlets. One reporter attended all five sessions and wrote the central narrative, a regional reporter in each helped identify themes and nuances. A third is guiding the Your Voice Ohio journalism and has attended all sessions since 2016.

Finding help with your ballot

There are organizations that attempt to provide fair representations of candidates and issues so that you can cast an informed ballot. 

Below are some of those resources:

  • Ballotpedia is a national organization that compiles information about federal and state candidates and some local races and issues The Ohio page is the place to begin.
  • Public radio stations in Ohio, led by WKSU FM 89.7, and with the help of Eye on Ohio and Your Voice Ohio, attempted to ask federal and state legislative candidates questions on your behalf. The questions were formulated after asking Ohioans in a statewide poll to name their most important concerns, followed by dialogues to gain better understanding of those issues. Unfortunately, candidates have been slow to respond. Those who have answered the questions can be found at this site, and new answers are added as they arrive. Disappointed that your candidate isn’t represented? Tell them that you’d like answers to questions that come from the more than 50 Your Voice Ohio news outlets that are attempting to represent your concerns.
  • As a part of its Civics Essential series, Issue Media Group news outlets in Ohio provided this primer on voting for judges. In the story are links to organizations offering appraisals of candidates for state and local judges. Outlets in the Issue Media Group are Soapbox Cincinnati, Freshwater Cleveland and The Hub Springfield.
  • Also as a part of the Civics Essential series, Issue Media Group news outlets in Ohio provided a guide to casting an informed vote on local issues. This story contains links that may be helpful.

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Amanda Garrett, Akron Beacon Journal
Amanda has covered news across the state of Ohio for more than 20 years. She specializes in making complex stories easier to understand, often through narrative storytelling. She's covered everything from public corruption and terrorism to spelling bees and Santa Claus. Before landing at The Akron Beacon Journal in 2015, she worked for 14 years at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, mostly on the projects/enterprise team. Before that, she wrote for smaller dailies in Northeast Ohio, The Cincinnati Post and the Raleigh/Durham News&Observer. Amanda has a special interest in eldercare, having paused her own career for three years to care for her own parents in failing health. She and her husband, the senior editor at The Plain Dealer, share a home with a 90-pound dog, three cats and a never-ending stream of news.