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2020 Elections

Ohio campaign helps two HBCUs get rid of voting barriers

Central State and Wilberforce partner with All Voting is Local

For years, Americans have showed up to polling places on Election Day to make their voices heard. But a process that should be simple often comes with long lines, headaches, miscommunication and voters being turned away.

In Ohio, the All Voting is Local (AVL) campaign has collaborated with Central State University and Wilberforce University, the state’s only two historically black colleges or universities (HBCUs), in an effort to keep students informed on voter education and to eradicate discriminatory barriers that deter voters from casting their ballots.

The campaign’s first event, CSWU Votes Opener, will kick off Tuesday on National Voter Registration Day, then lead into a yearlong campaign to continue the momentum around voter education, registration and tools that students will need to avoid the problems of the past.

“Because Central State is an HBCU and one of the few in the Midwest, we actually have a lot of students coming from other cities and they don’t know the rules around voter registration and the deadlines.” – All Voting is Local’s Mike Brickner

“If we invest now in the education and do the advocacy work that we can actually solve this problem and Central State and Wilberforce can have more students participating, more students who are making sure they are getting their voices heard, and more students can feel empowered,” said AVL’s Ohio state director Mike Brickner. “This isn’t just All Voting is Local coming and fixing everything for them; this is the students actually fixing their own problems. I think that that is a really powerful thing for the students and a really great skill for them to build for how to be changemakers in the world going forward.”

All Voting is Local is a collaborative effort between the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the American Constitution Society, the Campaign Legal Center and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law designed to “fight to protect and expand the right to vote for every American.” The campaign now operates in Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio, where it launched in 2018.

“The theory of change behind All Voting is Local’s work is to anticipate the problems before they actually happen,” Brickner said. “I’ve been in the space of being a voting rights advocate in the past where we continually see the same problems sort of bubble up around Election Day, but no one really did the advanced work months or years earlier to try and prevent those issues from popping up. That’s our role: to identify those issues and work 24/7, 365 days a year, whether there is a presidential election on the horizon or not, to ensure everyone is able to cast their ballot.”

It was in Ohio that local organizations began realizing something was amiss during local elections in certain precincts, particularly the ones that serve most students from Central State and Wilberforce.

Last November, AVL received information from the League of Women Voters Dayton Chapter and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality’s Western Ohio Office regarding problems voters were facing in Greene County, where both universities are located. They told AVL there were poll monitors out of Central State who witnessed a large number of students coming from the polling location on Election Day who had to cast provisional ballots, or ballots used by voters when their eligibility is being questioned.

Poll monitors were left scrambling to follow up, tracking down the names and phone numbers of students to ensure their vote was eligible. Although the campaign first learned about the chaotic scene last year, these were recurring problems.

“Knowing that, and that these are the only two HBCUs in Ohio, we wanted to get more information,” Brickner said.

AVL and Campus Vote Project examined voting patterns and data from last year. Their findings in the latest report, Needs Improvement: Barriers to the Ballot at Ohio’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, reflected four main problem areas:

  • Low turnout. While statewide voter turnout in Ohio exceeded 55% in 2018, the precinct serving Central State was a distant outlier with roughly 15% of registered voters casting a ballot.
  • College voters cast a disproportionate number of provisional ballots. At Central State, 46.4% of all votes cast were by provisional ballot; the rate was only 1.89% in Greene County.
  • College voters’ provisional ballots were more likely to be rejected. Provisional voters at the precincts serving Central State and Wilberforce were at least twice as likely to have their ballots rejected than other provisional voters in Greene County.
  • Registration problems. The most common reason for a provisional ballot was that a voter was not registered or the registration was not current. While this is generally true for counties throughout Ohio, a disproportionate number of people cast provisional ballots at the precincts serving Central State and Wilberforce because of registration issues.
“The students have really been helpful in helping pinpoint what events may look like and how we can tie voter education and registration into all of the events that we’re trying to do.” – Mike Brickner

“We started looking at the data and started looking at some of the reasons why and, in talking with Election Protection volunteers and students, what we really saw was that it was a voter education issue,” Brickner said. “Because Central State is an HBCU and one of the few in the Midwest, we actually have a lot of students coming from other cities and they don’t know the rules around voter registration and the deadlines. So many of them were thinking they were registered [in their respective states] so they can just go and cast their ballots with no problem.”

A large number of the students were given provisional ballots, but an even larger number of student ballots were tossed if requirements were not met. After identifying the problems, AVL members, including AVL Ohio advocacy manager Chynna Baldwin, began working on solutions, beginning with visits to Central State and Wilberforce.

Baldwin and others spoke with administration and student leaders to explain AVL’s purpose in hopes that students would be willing to collaborate with the campaign to improve their current situation. Baldwin used the initial conversation to map out the wants and needs of students and used the information to draw out an education plan.

Since the focus is the students, Baldwin particularly appreciates the student involvement and reminds them that these efforts are about them. Baldwin meets with the students at least twice a month. In between, there are regular phone calls with student organizers and social media ambassadors to create a more robust program.

“The students have really been helpful in helping pinpoint what events may look like and how we can tie voter education and registration into all of the events that we’re trying to do,” Baldwin said. “Of course, everyone’s major concern is 2020, but they still have two other elections in between that, so we’re taking each election as an opportunity to map out some of the different events we want to have.”

Maya Jones is an associate editor at The Undefeated. She is a native New Orleanian who enjoys long walks down Frenchmen Street and romantic dates to Saints games.