In April 2022, Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC) hosted a forum for candidates running for Cuyahoga County executive and some judicial seats. The Pastor Dr. Jawanza Colvin of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church kicked off the event with a forceful address that made it clear who he blamed for low voter turnout in Cleveland.
He said that GCC had engaged with thousands of voters in recent years, through canvassing, house parties and phone calls. One question came up again and again: “Where is the investment” in the community?
Cleveland and Cuyahoga County are willing to spend hundreds of millions on the Juvenile Justice Center, a bigger jail and a new police headquarters. This is happening, he added, “at a time when we spend a fraction of that cost on job training, workforce development and community asset building. We ask, where is the investment?”
Meanwhile, voter participation in Cleveland goes down every year, “not simply because of voter suppression, but because of voter depression” Colvin said.
That theme informs the work of the Battle for Democracy, a 10-year voter engagement campaign that GCC launched in 2021. It combines relational organizing — one-on-one relationship building — with sophisticated data collection and analysis. The effort is supported by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit organization that supports efforts “to solve our planet’s most pressing problems.”
The results so far are encouraging. In a report released in July, UCS explained that Greater Cleveland Congregations recruited and trained 40 volunteers, called captains, then gave them lists of people in their neighborhoods to contact — five times each — in Cleveland’s Wards 1, 2, 5 and 6, and some areas of Cleveland Heights and Warrensville Heights. The people on the lists were “low propensity” voters, meaning that they were registered to vote but rarely did.
“The 2022 turnout rate among those who were contacted and committed to voting was 56%, compared with an overall turnout rate of 30% for the City of Cleveland,” the report stated. In Ward 5, overall turnout was 15%, but it was 42% among those who gave their word to a captain.
“We know that it works,” said Keisha Krumm, lead organizer and executive director of GCC. “But it’s one thing to say it anecdotally and another thing to actually have the data.”
Overcoming voter depression
Greater Cleveland Congregations has been working on voter engagement since 2012, less than a year after its founding, said Khalilah Worley, senior organizer. The focus then was a school levy. In addition to mobilizing voters, GCC relayed what it was hearing from residents to Eric Gordon, who at the time was the CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.
The levy passed, and GCC carried on with that model for several more years, organizing in support of levies and acting as residents’ lobbyists to local education, health and human services and criminal justice officials.
“We would see momentum around issues,” Worley said, “but the voter turnout was declining each and every time.”
GCC senior organizer Alejandra Tres connected the organization with the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2020. They first worked together on overcoming fears of the expected COVID vaccine but then started talking about voting. The two groups worked together on a survey to try to get at the source of dwindling turnout. One of the questions asked people to rank their likelihood to vote in the next election on a scale of one to 10.
“What we discovered,” Worley said, “was that for most people who were at zero to even like five or six, was that they just didn’t trust” that their vote would get results.
“It wasn’t apathy,” she stressed. “No, they had stories around what they did not see or things that hadn’t changed in their communities for decades. People could name their vote hurt, like, ‘I voted in this election, and nothing changed,’ or, ‘Are you blind? Can’t you see what’s happening?’”
“It wasn’t apathy,” she repeated. “They were depressed about the lack of outcomes.”
This provided the strategy for the Battle For Democracy: a new approach to engagement.
The deadline to register to vote in the Nov. 7 contest is a month away, Oct. 10. Now is the time to make sure you have your ID ready. New Ohio voter ID laws are in effect. The legislation requires photo ID to vote in-person
Meeting people where they are
Captains contact the people on their lists five times — through phone calls, door-knocking, texts, a printed voters’ guide and a follow-up thank you call. The captains keep track of everything they hear in these exchanges. They also ask everyone for a commitment to vote.
Some people resist the attempts at persuasion. “Voting doesn’t change anything” is a common refrain, said the Rev. James Crews, who participates in the canvassing.
“I tell them, you have to think about your ancestors who fought for voting, and how many folks died for voting,” he said. “They know that. But they have to be reminded.”
Most people, however, are happy to open the door and have a conversation. Many say it’s the first time someone has come around about voting in years. (Canvassing organized by political parties often focuses on high-propensity voters.) Occasionally, a person from the list will ask to join the effort.
“People in the neighborhood, they know when you’re real,” Crews said. “So they see that we’re sincere, and it’s from the heart and we want to help, and they come along.”
UCS’s analysis found that “younger voters were more responsive than older voters when asked to commit to voting.” Young people, including many too young to vote, have proven to be enthusiastic and effective captains as well. A young captains’ visit to a senior center led to conversations that revealed that many people weren’t voting simply because they couldn’t get to the polls. So GCC arranged carpools.
“The youth love going door knocking, and the residents love to see them,” Worley said. “It’s this generational connection. The media is talking about all the things that youth are not doing right. So the residents, when they open their door and see three teenagers there to talk about issues, they’re blown away, and that leads to deep conversations.
“We say they are hope at the door.”
Convince and repeat
UCS continues to help GCC gather and analyze data to keep improving the model. One ongoing frustration has been the quality of voter lists. The contact information is often out of date. GCC’s captains have only been able to reach about 30% of the people on their lists. UCS is helping the organization build a reliable database.
“Improved recruitment and training strategies will also increase the effectiveness of organizing,” according to the UCS report. “Currently, each active captain yields about 10 commitments on average, for an overall contact-to-committed rate of about 16%. However, one in four captains converted 25% or more of their contacts, so we are confident that overall performance can be improved.”
The goal is to scale up and replicate the model. The scientists’ group estimates that with 240 captains, GCC could boost turnout in Ward 5 in 2024 to 46%, 10 percentage points above 2020.
“That’s the experiment,” said Krumm. “Can we really increase turnout among people who have just been sitting out, and is it scalable? Because it’s something that any neighborhood group or congregation or nonprofit could do if they’re really interested in deep relationships with neighbors.”
This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative celebrating Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, when news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.