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For Ohio Voters Of Color, Racial Tensions Underscore Importance Of 2020 Election

Two voters fill out ballots during early voting at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Cleveland.
Tony Dejak
Associated Press
Two voters fill out ballots during early voting at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, in Cleveland.

Daniel Shepherd of Columbus is spending his afternoon on a chilly, rainy Monday handing out sample ballots for the Democratic Party. The line stretches on at the Franklin County Board of Elections early voting center, and as each voter passes, Shepherd asks, "Would you like a Democratic sample ballot?"

Equipped with a poncho and face mask, Shepherd reaches his arm as far as he can to maintain his distance while still putting a sample ballot in the hands of anyone who wants one.

Shepherd is a Joe Biden supporter, and says it's imperative for people to vote President Donald Trump out of office.

"Trump has used the far-right platform as a way to gain political gain, and I feel now is the only opportunity to stop him because if he can be successful in November, I think we're in serious trouble," Shepherd says.

He says there are three main issues that stick out in this presidential race: income inequality, racial tension, and what he calls an "overall acceptance of division." Shepherd says Black men like himself and other people of color have faced racial tension and inequality for centuries, but the rhetoric and actions of Trump makes this election different. 

"I think he's using it as a tool to further his agenda, and I think that is destructive because you're empowering individuals who have the guns and the resources to capitalize on his racism," Shepherd says.

Just 10 miles north of the early voting center, a much different message is being touted by the president's supporters during a "Black Voices for Trump" rally in Westerville. 

Kelli Clark, of Lithopolis, drove from one edge of the county to the other to show her support for the president. She says she's excited as the race enters its final days. 

"What he stands for, I agree with," Clark says. "I agree with immigrants coming in the legal way. I agree with life, pro-life. I agree with his stance with the military. I have a son who's in the Army and I believe that he will keep supporting my son there while he fights for our country."

The speakers at this rally say there's a false narrative during elections that African Americans must vote for Democrats. As a Black woman, Clark grew up hearing that same message, but made the switch to the Republican Party in 2008 when Barack Obama ran for president. 

"I was told, 'Vote for him because he's Black.' I didn't do that and I'm not doing it now," Clark says. "I'm not going to. I'm like, it's more than that. It's not about your color. It's about what you're going to do when you're in office. Trump has proved what he's doing. We stand by what he said to drain the swamp." 

Voters inside the Franklin County Board of Elections for early voting on Oct. 6, 2020.
Credit Nick Evans / WOSU
Voters inside the Franklin County Board of Elections for early voting on Oct. 6, 2020.

National polls of Black voters, however, show a strong support for Joe Biden at nearly 85%, while Donald Trump's poll numbers with Black voters hover around the low teens. 

The Pew Research Center says 2020 could have the highest turnout of Black voters in U.S. history, with about 30 million Black people eligible to vote. In Ohio, there are about 1 million eligible Black voters, making up about 12% of the state's electorate. 

And national reports indicate Black voters, especially Black women, can make or break this presidential election in swing states.

Among people of color, the second largest group of voters in Ohio are Hispanic and Latinx, with more than 241,000 people eligible to vote. That's about 2.7% of the total voting population. 

Jose Luis Mas, counsel for the Ohio Hispanic Coalition, says their voter engagement programs hear three big issues raised: immigration, education and health care. 

Mas says Hispanic voters can bring a different elections perspective, such those who have immigrated from Latin American countries. 

"Those individuals are citizens of the United States and they have some ideas concerning universal health care and the responsibilities of the government," Mas says.

He adds that perspective can swing from one side of the political spectrum to the other, depending on what experiences took place in their former country.

Biden tends to lead Trump in polls among Hispanic voters by a 20-30 point margin, while Trump maintains about a third of the support among this group of voters.  

Of course, no racial group votes with one voice. And Mas says that's especially relevant among Latinx American immigrants who come from various countries with different government structures and religious beliefs. 

For example, Mas believes the ties between Latinx voters and the Catholic church play a role in embracing Trump on his anti-abortion stance. Other voters who have immigrated from countries controlled by socialists have said that's why they support Trump. 

Asian Americans make up about 1% of Ohio's electorate. Asian Services in Action, or ASIA, is a group that provides health and human services to immigrant and refugee communities. During the election, ASIA has been working with Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote to increase voter engagement in the community.

Elaine Tso, CEO of ASIA, says the economy is a top issue among Asian American voters, many of whom own and work for small businesses.   

"These are issues that are important to the community, issues that they care about and issues that they want to, you know, be part of the solution and being part of that solution for them, they understand, means going out and voting," Tso says.

And the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing additional challenges, with reports of ramped up tension and aggression against Asian Americans. Trump has labeled it the "China Virus," the "China Plague," and has even used the racist term "Kung Flu." Meanwhile, Asian unemployment is recovering at a slower rate than other groups. 

"Within the Asian community, you know, there has been a significant backlash just because of the narrative about the origins of the coronavirus and community members that ASIA serves has felt that impact as well," Tso says. "So that's another reason. That's another reason that the community members are extremely motivated this year, more than ever, to make sure that that their voice is heard at the polls." 

Making sure voices are heard at the polls is the driving force behind Kayla Griffin's group, All Voting Is Local. She says the voter rights organization works to ensure that everyone has equal access to the ballot. 

That includes fighting to get extra drop boxes in Ohio's counties. Griffin says the Ohio Secretary of State's "one drop box per county rule" disproportionately affects Black voters, 78% of whom live in the state's six most populated counties.

While the battle for equal access is ongoing, Griffin has a message to people who might be disheartened by government and politics. 

"If you are discouraged, the first tool that you have is voting," Griffin says. "Voting is the front door to the mansion of democracy. You cannot anticipate equity or equality in your community or for your folks if you are not using every tool necessary."

That's a spirit echoed in Shepherd at the Franklin County early voting center, who says the weather won't stop him from handling out sample ballots to voters. 

"I believe this is our only chance to get our country where it should be, and come rain or shine, I'm going to be out here giving out these ballots," he says.

Andy Chow is a general assignment state government reporter who focuses on environmental, energy, agriculture, and education-related issues. He started his journalism career as an associate producer with ABC 6/FOX 28 in Columbus before becoming a producer with WBNS 10TV.