Just months before Election Day, voters of all stripes in Ohio are in the same boat — both worried and hopeful.
They’re not sure who to trust in the media and government. 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.
But at the same time, they are hopeful that the 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 from across the state to hear more about what concerns them as the presidential election gets closer and how news media outlets can better provide coverage. Participants, some of whom did not want their names used as they shared personal stories, included single mothers, young dads, workers and retirees, gay and straight, Black and white, men and women, old and young.
The conversations revealed that despite Ohio’s diversity, there is plenty of common ground, even during times of intense partisanship and division in our nation.
Ohioans want more from their government and political leaders. They’d like to see fewer personal attacks and more honesty.
“My big issue is honesty. If you can’t believe what’s coming out of their mouths, it doesn’t matter,” says one Licking County woman. Alah Jackson of Columbus agreed, citing fairness and honesty as high priorities for her.
They also want leaders who will unite the country. Nick Schroeder, a retired accounting professor in Bowling Green, says, “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,” says Brhiannon Riddle, a 25-year-old single mother who lives in a small town north of Dayton.
A Cincinnati area voter says faith and trust in the voting system is paramount and he doesn’t appreciate rhetoric that undermines that.
Jo’el Jones, a Dayton woman who ran for state representative in the Democratic primary, says 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 says.
Roger Davis of Cambridge, a long-time elections worker, says he is worried 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,” he says.
“I’m tired of media bias”
Ohioans want more from journalists. They are thirsty for more fact-checking and issues stories, less 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, says 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,” she says.
Others went further and said they don’t care if their local outlets cover the presidential election — they can get that coverage from national outlets. Instead, the focus should be on state and local stories and issues.
And many Ohioans are skeptical of media.
“I’m tired of media bias. I want to hear all the facts,” says one Toledo area retiree. “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. Today it is a blood bath out there.”
Later in the conversation, the same woman added: “I feel that the media is our biggest problem right now and I think there are a lot of reasons for it. There’s not a lot of money in being a reporter. It seems like locally if you just give a press release to someone, they typically just use it without understanding the whole picture. They’re just covering so much and they have little time that they’re not investigative reporters anymore — at any level.”
Although they all say 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.
Michelle Anderson of Wooster says 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,” she explains. “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, maintains that President 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 says.
Riddle, though, says 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,” says 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, says her mom worked at General Motors and was able to support her family but those automaker jobs are long gone. She says the government needs to provide job training programs to boost workers into higher-paying positions.
One Hamilton County man who is the son of immigrants says his parents started a business and sacrificed for their children to have opportunities.
“Sometimes I think the government needs to support society and make sure those opportunities are available,” he says. “Other times, I think the government needs to get out of the way and let people be their best self as well.”
— About the project: Your Voice Ohio is the largest sustained, statewide media collaborative in the nation. Launched nearly five years ago, more than 60 news outlets have participated in unique, community-focused coverage of elections, addiction, racial equity, the economy, and housing. Nearly 1,300 Ohioans have engaged with more than 100 journalists in dozens of urban, rural, and suburban communities across the state. Over and over again, Ohioans have helped journalists understand their perspectives and experiences while sharing ideas to strengthen their local communities and the state. Doug Oplinger, formerly of the Akron Beacon Journal, leads the media collaboration. The Democracy Fund, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and Facebook are the primary funders of Your Voice Ohio. The Jefferson Center for New Democratic Practices, a non-partisan non-profit engagement research organization, designs and facilitates Your Voice Ohio community conversations.