Regarding the Disenfranchisement of Cleveland Voters, the Call is Coming from Inside the House


Q Deal opposition on the steps of City Hall (5/22/17). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Q Deal opposition on the steps of City Hall (5/22/17).

In the wake of Donald Trump's decisive victory over Joe Biden in Ohio — a margin (~8%) virtually identical to Trump's victory in 2016 — many have scratched their heads and speculated about the city of Cleveland's low voter turnout.

Cleveland is the largest city in Cuyahoga County, the state's so-called Democratic stronghold, yet its residents showed up to the polls in uninspired numbers. Only about 53% of Cleveland voters cast ballots, compared to nearly 70% countywide.

Cleveland City Councilpeople in the lowest-turnout wards across town told that there were a number of reasons for the lack of participation on election day: poverty, racism, inflated voter rolls, apathy, the pandemic. Democratic Ward Leader Rebecca Maurer wrote in Scene that the Ohio and Cuyahoga County Democratic Parties failed to effectively coordinate a ground game in the absence of official Biden campaign offices.

All of these factors are significant.

But among the most critical, and overlooked, factors is the degree to which Cleveland's own leaders have ensured that residents do not get to participate in how they are governed. For Cleveland's leaders, the electorate is a thing to be marshalled and deployed every four years, at which time they are expected to fill in the bubble for the Democratic candidate. This is what voters mean when they say that they are "taken for granted."

For voters, it is not only a sense of apathy and despair over presidential politics that keeps them at home. It's no doubt true that impoverished Clevelanders are so accustomed to their misery that they're unlikely to be convinced that a vote for one or another candidate will improve the material conditions of their lives. It has not in the past. But it's also true that they've tried to improve their lives, and every time they've done so at the local level, they've been shut out.

Though they'd deny it up and down, Cleveland City Council has made shutting out voters its preeminent mission. They communicate nothing with as much regularity and strength. Any councilperson bemoaning low voter turnout should recall that they forbid residents from offering public comment at council meetings; that they appoint their own successors, robbing residents of the ability to elect their own representatives; and that they work tirelessly to ensure that citizen petitions are invalidated or sabotaged.

Council President Kevin Kelley has been the architect, in recent years, of this textbook disenfranchisement. He and his allies on council have ensured that Clevelanders could not vote on a $15 minimum wage, a referendum on the Q Deal, citizen-led lead-safe legislation and a proposal to cut the size and pay of city council itself.

Well, those efforts have ripple effects. You cannot continually forbid the involvement of constituents and then expect them to show up for national elections. Any analysis of low voter turnout, then, must include not only the macro-level disenfranchisement borne of poverty, racism and gerrymanding, but the micro-level disenfranchisement's borne of the city's contempt of the electorate.

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