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“The Cut” is a weekly reporters notebook-type essay by an Ideastream Public Media content creator, reflecting on the news and on life in Northeast Ohio. What exactly does “The Cut” mean? It's a throwback to the old days of using a razor blade to cut analog tape. In radio lingo, we refer to sound bites as “cuts.” So think of these behind-the-scene essays as “cuts” from Ideastream's producers.

Civic engagement is more than just voting and I've seen it in action

About 70 people sit and wait for the April 2 Cuyahoga Falls Planning Commission meeting to start.
Abigail Bottar
Ideastream Public Media
About 70 people attended a Cuyahoga Falls Planning Commission meeting on April 2, 2024, where the commission discussed new zoning for the Merriman Valley and Schumacher Area.

Every election cycle, politicians, community organizers and activists are faced with the same struggle: getting people to the polls on Election Day.

But it seems like voter turnout is less than what advocates want every election. In March, when Ohioans voted on races from the presidential primary down to local school levies, voter turnout was 50% lower in Cuyahoga County compared to the 2012 presidential primary, according to analysis from the Ohio Capital Journal. Similar trends appeared in other counties across Ohio.

The United States saw high voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election and the 2018 midterms, according to analysis from the Pew Research Center. But even in our best years, U.S. rates pale in comparisonto other democratic countries. Uruguay topped the charts, with a whopping 94.9% of voting age population turnout in the country's 2019 presidential election. The U.S. voting age population turnout rate in 2020 was 62.8%.

There's this notion based on this data that American voters are apathetic, that we have the democratic right to vote and simply choose not to. That argument doesn't consider socioeconomic barriers and state laws that may make voting harder for some populations. Regardless, I don't think it's true. American voters care about issues they believe impact them, and they will show up to make their voices heard when given the opportunity. The best place to see this is at a public meeting of a government body.

As a reporter, I attend dozens of public meetings as I cover local government and issues impacting communities in Northeast Ohio. Some times, there are few people in the audience. But when there is an issue that impacts a community, the crowds come.

I was sitting in a Cuyahoga Falls planning commission meeting earlier this month when more than 50 residents showed up. The meeting was more than two hours long, and it was all about zoning codes, not the most flashy of topics. Reflecting on the meeting, I began to think about civic engagement. All of these people took the time out of their week to read incredibly long and sometimes technical legislation on zoning codes and to thoughtfully consider how the planning commission's actions could impact their lives and their community. They showed up to give their city government feedback on the proposal.

And the magical part? The city government listened. Cuyahoga Falls planners announced changes they made based on resident feedback from the previous planning commission meeting, and the residents showed their appreciation.

This was engaged democracy in action, and it's not an isolated incident. I've been to public meetings with a full house talking about sewers, dams, redistricting and countless other topics. These issues often greatly impact our everyday lives, and people know it. They show up, eager to listen, eager to be involved.

Civic engagement is more than just casting a ballot on Election Day. It's about showing up to these public meetings in your community, engaging with elected officials and holding them accountable and sharing feedback during public comment periods.

A big part of my job is amplifying those voices. We don't just want to hear from the public officials and decision makers. We want to give voice to the community and those impacted by these decisions.

Of course, this system isn't perfect, and barriers still exist for people with disabilities or in different socioeconomic circumstances. But in the age of Zoom, where a lot of local meetings are streamed and you can participate virtually or even email a comment in advance, it feels a lot more accessible. And those who cannot attend can still be heard: Pick up the phone, dash off an email, drop an old-fashioned letter in the mail.

So the next time you get down about the state of our democracy, I encourage you to engage on the local level. There are more ways, and more important ways, to be civically engaged than just on Election Day.

And about that? Make sure to vote, too.

"The Cut" is featured in Ideastream Public Media's weekly newsletter, The Frequency Week in Review. To get The Frequency Week in Review, The Daily Frequency or any of our newsletters, sign up on Ideastream's newsletter subscription page.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.