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Poll: Cleveland nonvoters care about issues but lack information and trust

photo of yard sign promoting voting
Nick Castele
Ideastream Public Media
A new survey examines the attitudes of infrequent and unregistered voters in Cleveland.

A new poll offers insights into a group of Clevelanders who don’t often get much attention during low-turnout local elections: infrequent voters.

Cleveland’s low-propensity voters care about issues in their communities, but they often don’t know much about the local political process, according to a summary of the poll’s findings. Many also don’t have faith that local elected officials can make a change.

It’s this information and trust gap – and not apathy – that keeps them from casting a ballot, contends Erika Anthony of Cleveland VOTES, a nonprofit that commissioned the poll alongside Policy Matters Ohio.

“They actually have deep concern about what's happening in their respective neighborhoods, in the city at large,” Anthony said. “I think in addition to the information gap, related to that is this lack of trust and seeing the ways in which their local government or their local elected officials are addressing the issues that are of most concern to them.”

For instance, 78 percent of respondents ranked policing and public safety as highly important issues for them. But only 29 percent said they had a high degree of faith in local officials to make a change.  

The silver lining for local officials is that 41 percent of respondents had a large amount of faith in their ability to distribute COVID-19 relief aid.

The pollster, HIT Strategies, surveyed 600 low-propensity voters and 100 Clevelanders who aren’t registered to vote. The poll took place over the course of about a month from Aug. 13 to Sept. 15, the day after the municipal primary.

The survey defined low-propensity voters as Clevelanders who are registered to vote but either haven’t cast a ballot at all or haven’t voted in a municipal election.

A plurality of respondents – 35 percent – said they might not vote in the upcoming election because they didn’t know enough about the candidates.

Although 89 percent of respondents said they cared about who will win the 2021 mayoral race, only 21 percent could identify their city council member, according to a polling memo.

The poll also found that 36 percent of respondents either thought Mayor Frank Jackson was running for reelection or weren’t sure whether he was in the race this year. Jackson is retiring after 16 years as mayor.

HIT Strategies also conducted focus groups geared toward low-propensity voters of color, according to Roshni Nedungadi, one of the firm’s partners.

“Something that really stood out was people's concern about their communities,” she said. “And coupled with the concern – because they could really explain in detail what they felt was going wrong and what they were concerned about – was a sense that they didn't understand how to fix it.”

The survey also turned up evidence that infrequent voters are living in some level of economic precarity, with 41 percent saying they had skipped a bill or paid it late in the last month.

Just 16 percent of registered voters in Cleveland cast ballots in the Sept. 14 primary, an increase over the 13 percent turnout of four years ago. While turnout in the Nov. 2 general election is expected to be higher, it doesn’t have far to go to break the 24 percent turnout of 2017.

So how can nonvoters be converted into voters? Anthony and Daniel Ortiz of Policy Matters Ohio advocate finding ways to make local democracy tangible for people – such as by translating election materials into people’s first languages or hosting neighborhood conversations about COVID-19 relief money.

“So we're meeting folks where they're at and can help them take that step,” Ortiz said. “And that step could be voting. It could be showing up, providing public comment at city council, or it could be something else. I think whatever that step is, I'm hopeful, looking at these findings, that this will inform us on how we can really achieve that more equitable democracy.”

Copyright 2021 WCPN. To see more, visit WCPN.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.