Ohioans retreat into safe groups, crave post-election unity

Top left: Photo courtesy Office of Governor Mike DeWine. Bottom left: KentWired photo by Michael Indriolo. Center: KentWired photo by Michael Indriolo. Upper right, background: Photo courtesy of the CDC. Upper right, foreground: KentWired photo by Kristen Jones. Bottom, center: Columbus Dispatch photo by Adam Cairns.

Ohioans are exhausted during the final run up to the 2020 presidential election.

They’re worried about COVID-19, about where the United States is heading, about the vote, both the mechanics of how it will work — or won’t — and about who will ultimately win.

Most are avoiding any face-to-face political conflict outside their pandemic bubbles of friends, people who pretty much agree with them, anyway.

And all the while, they say they’re drowning in a never-ending flood of news, yet they still can’t find information they need and trust, like what the candidates will do if elected.

“I would like to have a peaceful nation without drama 365 days a year. I’m tired of it,” Northeast Ohio resident Sheilah Smith said during a series of regional conversations with Your Voice Ohio (YVO), a project that allows journalists to listen in to voters’ conversations across the Buckeye State.

The goal of this series of five YVO meetings — which happened over Zoom during the first full week of October — was to find out how Ohioans think we could move forward after the election, no matter who is president. 

Participants had the option of remaining anonymous in articles about the meetings so they could speak freely about hot-button issues without fear of public retribution.

Editors representing more than 50 YVO-connected news organizations suggested the topic as they watched political divisions grow wider and deeper across their communities and the nation. Just as importantly, Ohioans expressed the same concern during 15 other YVO conversations that happened over the summer.

In all, 20 voters met in five smaller groups — from two to five people — that represented where they live: Central, Northeast, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest Ohio. The ages of voters involved ranged from a 22-year-old first-time voter from Central Ohio — who was too young by a month to vote in 2016 — to an 82-year-old man from Southwest Ohio man who still recalls the pride he felt casting his first vote in 1956 when incumbent President Dwight D. Eisenhower beat Adlai Stevenson.

Most seemed to have made up their minds and were voting for Donald Trump or Joe Biden. But there were some undecided voters, too, including a Southwest Ohio woman who voted for Barack Obama before switching sides and voting for Trump in 2016. The groups also included an unwavering Libertarian and a man who said he and many of his friends probably wouldn’t vote because they’ve never seen a president impact the problems in their day-to-day lives. 

There were no fights, nor even harsh words during the five 2-hour virtual meetings. 

Often, voters looked for — and sometimes found — common ground on everything from the economy to what they hope will happen after the election, when the real work begins.

Unity is what voters craved most.

They want nasty fights and bickering to stop among politicians — and among themselves. 

“Everybody should treat others as they would want to be treated,” said Jinnifer Trubey of Toledo. “That should start with the leader of the free world, and that should trickle down.”

They also want the economy to bounce back with good-paying jobs, but acknowledge there’s a big, dangerous and unpredictable obstacle standing in the way: COVID-19.

Ohio: The state we’re in.

  • Jobs: One in four Ohioans lost a job at the outset of the pandemic. Five months since hitting bottom, only half those people are back at work.
  • Pandemic illnesses: Ohio recently began breaking records for new cases on a daily basis. In about a week, the state will have had as many cases as there are people living in Ohio’s fifth-largest city, Akron, which has 197,000 people.
  • COVID-19 deaths: Ohio ranks 27th among the 50 states for deaths per capita — with lowest being best. About 43.5 of every 100,000 Ohioans have died. Latest number of deaths exceeds 5,080, and about 100 are losing their lives each week.
  • Voting: While Ohio voter registrations have risen by about 1.5 million in the last three decades, the highest turnout didn’t occur recently. It was in 1992 in the race between William Clinton and incumbent George H.W. Bush. In that year, 77% of registered voters turned out. In 2016, 71% turned out.

The virus has already infected more than 8 million Americans and left 218,000 dead. Until the pandemic can be tamed or better managed, voters fear little else can  be accomplished.

 “I’m a conservative, too, but just the opposite of what a conservative should be (on the) pandemic,” said Faith Williams, who lives in Northeast Ohio. 

Williams said “it felt like states were pitted against each other,” which prevents the U.S. from managing the crisis as well as other countries have.

“Everybody needs to be on the same page,” she said.

But whatever happens nationally, many Ohio voters want to find ways to come together. A few have lost friends over political disagreements, or avoided talking to friends and family who disagree with them because they know it could lead to a fight. 

“Hopefully when the whole country’s temp comes down, it will be easier to have conversations,” said Cheryl Gordon of Southeast Ohio.

Two voters — Michelle MacCutcheon of Southwest Ohio and Mikel Grenier of Northwest Ohio — offered their experience reaching across the political and social chasms.

It can start, they said, with a shared purpose and respect.

“I can find common ground with anyone — except trolls,” said MacCutcheon, a former volunteer coordinator of Ohio’s Libertarian party. 

MacCutcheon knows her presidential candidate, Jo Jorgensen, is going to lose, so she’s looking forward, trying to build new alliances to get what she wants done.

“I already reached out to the Green Party in my area for a meeting,” she said. “Criminal justice reform. No bailouts or subsidies. We can immediately connect on those and move forward.”

Grenier, a church receptionist, was long hesitant to engage in political conversations but is engaging more using life lessons learned as a member of the LGBTQ community.

“I work with somebody who does not believe in some of the exact same issues as I do,” Grenier said. “I go out of the way to make sure they know their opinion is just as important as mine.

“We may not agree,” Grenier said, “but I still love you as a person.”

Ray Chorey, who lives in Southwest Ohio, said an old leadership tenet may apply to re-building bridges between people who disagree: You should seek to understand to be understood. 

“Take the first step and tell me where you’re coming from and tell me why you believe what you believe,” he said. 

People coming from different directions may still disagree on some points, but they may find they agree on others, he said.

In that spirit, YVO has put together a five-part series of stories beginning today to help Ohioans better understand each other in this divided moment.

Each story focuses on a YVO meeting in one of the five regions to examine a common theme voiced by voters statewide. 

With each, look for a sidebar story featuring one of the voters who was part of that region’s YVO conversation.

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.