‘A sleeping giant.’ Voting rights groups engage Black Ohioans

By: - November 7, 2023 4:55 am

Voters casting ballots. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

The age-old method of knocking on doors to encourage voting has not been lost as Ohio holds another general election.

For groups like the Ohio Organizing Collaborative and the Ohio Unity Coalition, that canvassing started long ago, in the summer before Ohio’s special election for the previous Issue 1.

In engaging voters this way, coming right to their homes to educate and converse with Ohioans, folks like Prentiss Haney wanted to bring out the thousands of unregistered Black voters he and other groups knew were out there waiting to have their voice heard.

“The Black vote in Ohio is like a sleeping giant,” said Haney, co-executive director of the OOC. “It is the one electorate in Ohio that no one is counting on to show up, and so when they do show up, it makes a big impact on elections.”

Working with other voting rights groups, affiliates who worked to reach out to the formerly incarcerated population in Ohio, and even student groups, Haney said they have seen 22,000 voters registered since June. Of those registered, he said 90% were African American.

“If you are a citizen, and you are someone who is engaged in your local community, you should be able to cast your ballot,” Haney told the Capital Journal.

The Ohio Unity Coalition’s executive director, Petee Talley, participated in a “voting rights bus tour” stop in Columbus along with the OOC, the Ohio NAACP and the national Black Voters Matter Fund in an effort to allow “historically marginalized voters to have unfettered access to the ballot box.”

“We come together because we’re concerned about the participation of Black voters in Ohio and the shaping of public policy in Ohio without them,” Talley said.

Newly registered voters in the Black community and elsewhere could significantly impact everything from redistricting and minimum wage, to reproductive rights and marijuana legalization, according to Talley.

“It’s issues around democracy and anything that attempts to roll back our rights, the rights many fought for back in the Civil Rights Movement,” Talley said.

So, this summer, the Ohio Unity Coalition also took to the streets to knock on doors. They also set up a website to help voters register or re-register to vote, brought with them the tools to show voters what kind of ID they’d need at the polls, and inform them of the deadlines for elections, for example.

“I think people really responded very enthusiastically throughout the summer,” Talley said.

Seeing the turnout and results of the August special election, in which an attempt to raise the threshold to approve a constitutional amendment was soundly defeated, showed the power that an increased electorate can have, in Talley’s view.

“People felt their rights were being restricted, so they stepped into that space because they did not want to see the threshold be raised,” she said.

While many of the groups worked to raise Black voter participation in general, groups like the social welfare group Black Ohio Leaders for Democracy also worked specifically in support of the current Issue 1, a constitutional amendment that would cement reproductive rights into the state constitution, and Issue 2, an initiated statute to legalize marijuana in Ohio.

“We believe reproductive freedom is something Black voters would be interested in,” said Talley, who also joined with Black Ohio Leaders for Democracy for separate voter engagement events.

For future elections, bringing back “Golden Week,” the week Ohio used to hold in which Ohioans could register to vote and vote, allowing those who hadn’t yet registered more time would be helpful, Haney said. Taking a page out of other state’s books and instituting same-day registration would also increase the likelihood of more voter participation.

Currently, the last day for voter registration is 30 days before the next election.

“For most people, by the time they realize that there’s an election happening … they can’t even access the ballot because they’re not registered,” Haney said.

Polls for Tuesday’s general election open at 6:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. Those who did not mail their absentee ballots in can still return them to their local boards of election on Election Day.



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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.