CINCINNATI – Thick, dark clouds begin to cover the skies as people briskly pass through Fountain Square.
They avoid locking eyes with the young man holding a clipboard. Some fear he’s trying to sell them something. Others are simply in a hurry to avoid the impending rainfall.
That doesn’t keep Ayinde Khamisi from greeting passersby with a big grin and a hello. All he wants to hawk is a gentle reminder: Don't forget to register to vote and go to the polls on Election Day.
“Things will not change unless we vote,” said Khamisi, a 28-year-old Cincinnatian who himself just started voting for the first time last year.
He is part of one group’s statewide effort to register 150,000 people across the state. The Ohio Organizing Collaborative will sign up more voters than any other in the state. By next month, the group hopes to have signed up 44,000 Cincinnatians to cast a ballot.
That’s enough people to sway any race – from the Hamilton County Commission contest to the presidential election – in the state. Mitt Romney lost Ohio to Barack Obama by fewer than 105,000 votes in 2012.
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Khamisi is one of roughly a hundred staffers working every day across the state to get people registered or make sure their information is up to date with local election boards. They travel in teams of five to disperse throughout local parks or neighborhoods in the afternoons and evenings. Each staffer has a goal to get 17 people registered daily.
The focus is to register people living in diverse and poor neighborhoods in Ohio’s biggest cities. The Ohio Organizing Collaborative is targeting six Ohio cities: Akron, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Kent and Youngstown. They work with local churches and interfaith organizations, like the Amos Project in Cincinnati, for office space and to target neighborhoods.
“We’re doing our part to shape the electorate,” said Michael McGovern, a spokesman for the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.
The organization finds this task especially important this year. Over the last year, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has booted inactive voters --– people who haven’t been to the polls in six years and have not responded to requests to update their address with the office – from the registration list. A Reuters analysis earlier this year found more than 144,000 voters in Cincinnati, Columbus and Cleveland had been kicked off the list.
They’ve spent time registering voters in Washington Park, on Fountain Square and at Findlay Market. Khamisi and his team have knocked doors in Avondale, Price Hill and Corryville.
“We talk to a lot hundreds and hundreds of people,” Khamisi said. “Sometimes you run into people who say, ‘You registered me last week!’ You’ll forget.”
Other people are tougher sells. Dozens of people assure Khamisi every day that they’re registered already, but he has his doubts. Some simply aren’t interested in voting – especially in this year.
“Ain’t nobody to vote for,” one guy shouts back as he walks away.
Those are the type of responses that frustrate Khamisi, although not visibly. This is when he also tries to remind potential voters about local races and issues they will help decide on the ballot, if they register.
“A lot of people say the same thing: that they don’t feel like their voice will matter,” Khamisi said. “Their voice doesn’t matter, because they don’t utilize it. If everybody feels that way, that’s why we don’t see any changes happen.
On this humid, Monday afternoon, Khamisi broaches nearly anybody that strolls by – young, old, white or black. He doesn’t pass over a man who walks over the bus with swollen eyes and later tells Khamisi he is homeless. (Khamisi is only equipped to register Ohio voters and cannot register the man because he lives in Northern Kentucky).
But across the street Khamisi’s co-worker, Bri Middlebrooks, 26, of Cincinnati, registered one man who identifies as homeless. She updates his voter information with his new address at a homeless shelter.
“I’m a walking dead man right now,” said Marvin Lowery, a 46-year-old who recently became homeless.
He may have lost his home, but since Middlebrooks pointed out to him that he is able to use the shelter as an address, he hasn’t lost his right to vote.
“If you vote, technically, you have a voice in this country,” Lowery said.