Scrambling For Votes In Ohio

From New York and California, Activists Converge on a Midwestern Swing State

In her years as a community activist in Brooklyn, Emma Wolfe, a Williamsburg resident, has done organizing on behalf of change in the public schools, for the Working Families Party, the third party insurgency that works to move the New York Democratic Party to the left, and for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN).

But since February of this year, Wolfe has been living in Dayton where she is the southwest Ohio regional director for America Coming Together (ACT), one of the largest of the so-called 527 political committees legally required to act independently of the candidates they support.

ACT, which is headed up by Ellen Malcolm, the founder and president of EMILY’s List, the influential group that helps to elect Democratic women, and has the strong backing of the AFL-CIO, one of its most powerful member unions, the Service Employees International Union, and the Sierra Club, among many progressive groups, could prove to be one of Sen. John Kerry’s most potent weapons in his effort to unseat Pres. George W. Bush.

According to opensecrets.org, philanthropist George Soros and insurance executive Peter Lewis have each pledged to provide up to $10 million to ACT, which is mounting advertising and voter registration and turn-out campaigns in 17 swing states, of which Ohio is one of the most important.

Jess Goode, an ACT spokesperson who works out of Columbus, the state capital, said the group has 18 active field offices across Ohio and has registered at least 85,000 out of the roughly 500,000 new voters there. America Votes, another 527 that serves as an umbrella organization for ACT and other progressive groups active in the presidential race, has registered another 215,000 new voters, according to a source familiar with the effort in Ohio.

Wolfe, who is a lesbian, spent last Friday evening at Paramount’s Kings Island, a giant amusement park in Cincinnati, which was playing host to an annual gay night as a benefit for the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community center. Wolfe was joined by others from ACT, Cincinnati gay activists, members of the Cleveland Stonewall Democrats, an LGBT group, and about 30 staff and volunteers affiliated with the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA), the New York State gay lobbying group. The ESPA group took a 24-hour round-trip bus excursion from Manhattan to Cincinnati to help with the voter registration and identification effort as well as to campaign on several gay-related referenda facing local voters.

Citizens to Restore Fairness (CRF) is a Cincinnati group responsible for the YES on 3 campaign, a measure on the November 2 ballot aimed at repealing a 1993 voter initiative there that enacted the nation’s only law explicitly permitting anti-gay discrimination in housing and employment. The 1993 measure also forbids Cincinnati from approving any anti-bias ordinances protecting the LGBT community. After several years of unsuccessful, though not completely conclusive, legal challenges, activists in Cincinnati concluded that a repeal campaign was their best route.

The gay community in Ohio, like those in ten other states, is also facing a referendum on November 2 on the question of amending the state constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Of the 11 amendments under consideration across the nation, the Ohio proposal is among those that go furthest in attacking not only same-sex marriage but also domestic partnership and civil union arrangements. The amendment’s far-reaching implications have drawn opposition from many political, business and labor leaders in Ohio, as well as newspaper editorial pages, but the battle for public opinion has just begun.

The gathering of activists Friday night at Kings Island provided a window into efforts that are going on every day in communities across Ohio. Close to 50 people armed with clipboards, voter registration forms and lists to record phone numbers of sympathetic voters, scoured the park for more than four hours. In an election that will draw more than 100 million voters, the scene at Kings Island was a decidedly retail event, but according to Wolfe, activists affiliated with ACT and CRF have knocked on a total of 750,000 doors throughout southwest Ohio—which includes Dayton and Springfield, as well as Cincinnati—and identified 200,000 voters. Roughly 60,000 new voters have been registered in Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati.

During a day and a half of effort that included the evening at Kings Island, street canvassing on Saturday, and voter registration efforts at Cincinnati’s roughly dozen gay and lesbian bars Saturday night, the group from ESPA signed up about 300 new voters and obtained voter contact information on 1,300 people that CRF, Stonewall and ACT will be able to use in the four weeks until the election.

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