Columbus, Ohio, residents lining up to vote Sunday. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty…)
CLEVELAND -- The neighborhood doesn’t look promising for scaring up votes: One house is charred and barely standing, a victim of arson; others have boards over their windows and orange Xs spray-painted on their doors. But the men, mostly African American, many from a shelter down the road, pass dutifully down the street, leaving fliers that encourage people to vote early and include a phone number to call for a ride to the polls.
“We’re targeting lower voter turnout areas,” explained Deltrim Kimbro, 43, an ex-convict who is leading one of the canvassing groups in the closing days of the campaign. “This election is going to be close, and a couple of votes in each precinct matter.”
This is an effort organized by Community of Faith Church, in which groups go out to different areas of town and remind people to vote, offering a ride if they need one. Since Thursday, they’ve visited downtown Cleveland, area malls and neighborhoods like this one, leaving fliers and reminding people about the importance of voting.
“We’re just encouraging people to vote. It doesn’t make any difference who you’re voting for,” said the Rev. Otis Merrill, pastor of the church, who helps organize the efforts. “We’re trying to get people off their behinds and get off and vote. This is the most important election of any time.”
Cuyahoga County, of which Cleveland is the county seat, may be among the most important counties in the nation on Tuesday. Ohio is projected to be close, and the vote may ultimately come down to turnout in areas such as Cleveland, which has a significant number of African Americans who support Obama.
Cuyahoga County gave Obama the biggest margin of any Ohio county in 2008 -- he won it by 258,000 votes. In 2000, Democrats won Cuyahoga County by 167,000 votes. A recent memo by Mike Podhorzer, political director of the AFL-CIO, pointed to Cuyahoga County and other neighboring northeastern Ohio counties as key to an Obama victory.
“To ensure victory for Obama, his campaign and his allies must minimize the dropoff in turnout relative to the statewide rate in Cuyahoga as well as Franklin and Athens counties, and, as was the case in 2008, keep turnout in the other 12 Democratic strongholds at or above the statewide rate,” he wrote.
Merrill’s strategy for encouraging voter turnout doesn’t just depend on the altruism of Clevelanders who want to skip watching the Browns game to knock on doors in the chilly Ohio fall. He also gives out free food and grocery store gift cards to the neediest canvassers, many of whom are ex-cons down on their luck.
In the small anteroom of his church on Sunday, he blessed the food and watched as men shuffled across the linoleum floor to collect chicken, beans, fruit and cupcakes provided by the church. When seconds were announced, the men leaped up for more. After the meal, he gave them instructions on how to hand out fliers and where to stand, then said a prayer.
They headed out in the street. Gerald Taylor, 52, wore long-johns under his jeans to protect from the cold.
It turned out that other groups had the same idea about canvassing in low voter turnout areas. Although the neighborhood seemed nearly empty, houses abandoned, cars broken down, Merrill’s volunteers ran into two other canvassing groups -- one from the Obama campaign, and one from AFSCME, a union knocking on doors to support a ballot initiative.
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