Just months before Election Day, Ohio voters of all stripes are both worried and hopeful.
They’re concerned about economic security for themselves and fellow Americans. They aren’t sure how the election will go down during a pandemic. They want honest leaders to come up with more fixes to serious problems. They’re not sure who to trust in the media and government.
At the same time, they are hopeful that nationwide protests are opening eyes to systemic racism, the need for reform and the next generation of leadership. The fact that the protests are drawing Black and white, young and old is seen as a sign of unity during a very divisive time in the country. And they’re lifted by seeing small acts of kindness during the pandemic — neighbors helping strangers.
Your Voice Ohio, a collaborative journalism project involving nearly 50 news outlets, held multiple two-hour, online conversations in early July with voters across the state to hear about their concerns as the presidential election draws closer, and how news media outlets can better provide coverage.
Participants included single mothers, young dads, workers and retirees, gay and straight, Black and white, men and women, old and young.
The conversations revealed that within Ohio’s diversity, there is plenty of common ground, even during times of intense partisanship and division in our nation.
Ohioans said want more from their government and political leaders. They’d like to see fewer personal attacks and more honesty. They also want leaders who will unite the country.
Nick Schroeder, a retired accounting professor in Bowling Green, said, “I’m really interested in things about bringing us together. How much people and candidates are actually going to try to bring us together, rather than the ‘here’s my viewpoint, which is much better than your viewpoint.’”
When asked how leaders might bridge the political divides seen in the United States today, Jonathan Chu of suburban Columbus said, “I don’t think either side is interested in bridging divides. They want to make it a bigger divide and grab a bigger piece.”
There is a strong current of mistrust of the government.
“I don’t think mail-in voting is a good idea because I don’t trust people, especially a lot of people in the government right now,” said Brhiannon Riddle, 25, a single mother who lives in a small town north of Dayton.
Jo’el Jones, a Dayton woman who ran for state representative in the Democratic primary, said closing the polls to in-person primary voting at the last minute and shifting to extended absentee voting during the pandemic was chaotic and caused a lot of people to miss the chance to vote. She’s worried that Ohio won’t be ready for November, especially if the pandemic continues.
“I don’t know. It’s a damn mess,” she said.
Roger Davis of Cambridge, a longtime elections worker, said he is worried that county boards of elections will be swamped with a massive upswing in requests for absentee ballots this fall and they’ll have difficulty finding poll workers. “It concerns me for sure.”
Ohioans also want more from journalists. They are thirsty for more fact-checking and issues stories, less of what they see as political bias, the inclusion of diverse voices in stories, more accurate headlines and fewer typos and spelling mistakes.
Reghan Buie of Youngstown, a first-time voter, said she hunted for hours for local news stories about candidates on her primary ballot but found very little. “There should be more information about local races because they matter.”
Others went further and said they don’t care if their local outlets cover the presidential election, because they can get that coverage from national outlets. Instead, they said, the focus should be on state and local stories and issues.
And they said many Ohioans are skeptical of media.
“I’m tired of media bias. I want to hear all the facts. I think that you can be dishonest by communicating the facts but not all of them, and also by taking things out of context. Where is Walter Cronkite when you need him? He used to just give us the news and let us make up our own minds,” said one Toledo-area retiree.
Davis, who works for a nonprofit, said he consumes stories from multiple media outlets but would like to hear more voices in those news stories from people who hold different political views.
“Sometimes, it’s good to be challenged in your ideas,” he said. “I don’t necessarily always like to hear what I already think I know. Sometimes, I like to see the other point of view, even if I disagree with it. I like to know other people are being heard.”
Although they all said the pandemic is top of mind, participants named the economy, health care, environment, education and equality as their top issues in the 2020 election season.
Anderson said the temptation to pick one top issue ignores the fact that so many issues are interconnected.
“All of these things go together and can benefit us all. Health care needs are related to job needs, and jobs and minimum wage are related education opportunities, and where we can live, to better schools. We make it a lot of little things and need to look at all those things as a whole.”
Fred Camden of Springfield in southwestern Ohio maintains that President Donald Trump has brought good-paying jobs to the country. Camden retired after 40 years as a letter carrier — a job that was once a ticket to the middle class. “A good job is out there if you really want one,” he said.
Riddle, though, said it’s not that easy. She got into a government-subsidized, job-training program to help her land a customer service job that pays $13 an hour.
“Still, at 40 hours a week, $13 an hour, I am at the point where I’m stuck in the middle. Welfare isn’t going to help me anymore because I make just enough that I’m over [the eligibility threshold], but I also can’t afford to live on the rest,” said Riddle, a single mother. She still works part time at her old job at a hotel making $9 an hour.
Carol Lynn, a mother of two in Dayton, said her mom worked at General Motors and was able to support her family, but those automaker jobs are long gone. She said the government needs to provide job training programs to boost workers into higher-paying positions.
The coronavirus pandemic pulled back the curtain on disparities in health care, which is an ongoing issue for voters.
It’s something Adrienne Zurub of Cleveland has seen for a long time as a registered nurse. Zurub said that for many Black people, it’s just six degrees of separation to knowing someone who died of COVID-19.
“That really hits home, and again, it exposes the disparity in health care that we’ve experienced in health care since we touched these shores,” said Zurub, who is retired. “… Everyone thinks that we have the greatest health care system in the world. We don’t. When you’re telling nurses and front-line workers to put on a bandana and a scarf and a garbage bag and go out and essentially sacrifice yourself — that should say something.”
The recent protests over police brutality have elevated the issues of racial injustice for many Ohioans.
Jones said oppressive public policies have long been her top priority. She worries about raising two Black sons and what might happen to them when they get their driver’s licenses or go out for a run.
Mykell Rose, a gay, biracial man from Hamilton County, said equality issues have become a top priority for him.
And Lynn, a mother of a Black son, said the video of George Floyd’s killing under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer brought the issue of racial justice to the forefront for her.
It’s not just Black Ohioans who care about Black Lives Matters.
“I’ve learned a lot the past few months and I have educated myself,” said Stacy Dodson, a white woman in Wheelersburg. “I’ve educated my children. I think there needs to be more formal education with our history and not so much the white-washed history I had as a child. My eyes were opened to what was going on in the world and my heart was broken.”
Rick Phelps, a retired EMT and law-enforcement officer who lives in Southeast Ohio, said he is worried about the outcome of the November election.
“I never would have dreamed four or five months ago, we’d be talking about defunding the police,” he said. “It is unfathomable to me. I just cannot believe where one party is and the other party is. We’re supposed to be working together here. We aren’t African Americans, we’re not Asian Americans. We are Americans, first and foremost.”
Despite the challenges of the protests and pandemic, both are a source of hope for Ohioans.
Lynn said she was encouraged to see Blacks, whites, young, old all protesting against racism and injustice. “It’s a united front fighting against these issues and that the young people are taking the lead,” she said.
Jones is hopeful the protests will bring real reform. “The ugliness of racism and fear is exposed, and because it is exposed there is outright anger. And out of all of this, leaders will arise.”
Anderson said she likes that Ohioans — and business owners — are starting to stand up against displaying the Confederate flag. She sees it as a recognition of the pain that the flag causes. “That gives me hope.”
Others say they’re lifted by seeing acts of kindness — people delivering meals, crafters making homemade masks, donors contributing to food banks — during the pandemic.
And Buie said she believes the next generation is ready to step up and lead. “We are coming for the Senate, we are coming for the House. We’re coming for everything. We want to improve this nation.”
While there is tremendous division in America, Ohioans recognize the value in hearing from those who hold different opinions.
Josh Culling said he moved back to his hometown of Toledo in part because of its diversity. He celebrates that inside a Toledo bar he can find hourly workers, professionals, Muslims, Christians, Republicans, Democrats sitting together. He described it as a chance to venture “outside my little bubble.”
Your Voice Ohio, launched nearly five years ago, has involved more than 60 news outlets in community-focused coverage of elections, addiction, racial equity, the economy and housing. Its primary funders are The Democracy Fund, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Facebook. The Jefferson Center for New Democratic Practices, a non-partisan, non-profit engagement research organization, is a partner in the community conversations.
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