Cleveland’s low voter turnout shapes mayoral race

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CLEVELAND (WJW) – It’s likely the most consequential political race in Cleveland in more than a decade.

Justin Bibb and Kevin Kelley will be the two names on the ballot on Nov. 2.

They are vying to take the helm of the city after 16-year Mayor Frank Jackson leaves office after a historic four terms.

But the crowded field of primary candidates was whittled down to Kelley and Bibb by only about 40,000 people, just 16 percent of the city’s registered voters.

“It’s really sad, it’s not surprising to me, I can’t imagine not voting,” said Jackie Godic, who talked to FOX 8 as she was dropping off a friend’s voter registration forms at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.

“It would make more sense for me instead of sitting at home on the couch, to come on in and make that vote,” said Willetta Taylor, a Cleveland voter.

But 16 percent is an improvement from past years. In Cleveland’s last mayoral primary – in 2017 – only 13 percent of registered voters came out to choose between Frank Jackson, the incumbent, and Zack Reed a former city councilman.

Erika Anthony, co-founder of Cleveland Votes, a non-partisan organization working to engage the city’s electorate says that a 3 percent increase is a big deal.

“We have tons of community organizations that have been hosting forums and debates,” Anthony said. Cleveland Votes worked to register voters across the city, focusing on neighborhoods with historically low turnout.

The organization also has new research on what’s the cause of the historically low turnout in Cleveland.

“Voters are not apathetic, they are concerned that the folks that are in some of the offices are not meeting the demands they would like to see as it relates to things like healthcare, public safety, crime,” Anthony explained.

Those major issues and the topic of low turnout are top of mind for Bibb and Kelley and are often brought to their attention at campaign events, debates, forums and meetings.

Both candidates acknowledge voter turnout is a challenge in Cleveland and it varies greatly by neighborhood, which is obvious by the amount of election yard signs on some streets.

“It was always our goal to not only talk to voters that consistently voted in mayor’s races but we wanted to expand the electorate,” said Bibb.

Kelley’s campaign has a similar mindset. “We are looking for people that may not have great voter history, but might be likely to vote in this mayoral election,” Kelley said.

Kelley points to actions on the state level like the voter roll purge and limiting ballot drop boxes that he says restrict voter access.

“We live in one of the most restrictive states when it comes to voter rights,” says Kelley, who is adding education to his campaigning and conversations with voters.

“Despite everything that the state is doing, here’s the path, here’s how you can make a difference,” Kelley said.

But Bibb says Clevelanders feel left behind by city leaders.

“When your city government doesn’t actively include you in the process of course it’s going to be hard for you to get excited about voting in the mayor’s race,” Bibb said.

That belief has directly impacted his campaign strategy.

“How do we do a better job of connecting the real work of city government to the lived experience of its residents?” Bibb said.

Both candidates promise change and hope that brings Clevelanders to the polls.

“I think Clevelanders are hungry for change that is going to get things done, that is going to push Cleveland forward and I am looking forward to being that mayor,” said Kelley.

But the candidates disagree, of course, on what kind of change and who should deliver it.

“The mayor must meet voters where they are, that’s how you build faith and confidence that government works and as a candidate I’ve done that and as mayor I will continue to do that,” said Bibb.

Early voting is underway at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections at 8:00 am every weekday until Election Day on November 2nd. The polls will also be open Saturday and Sunday the last two days of October.

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