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Ohio ballot initiative on drug penalties is motivating voters in Cleveland

CLEVELAND — Many African American voters here cited two motivations for getting to the polls: to vote against a Republican Party they see as increasingly hostile to their community and to support Issue 1, which would reduce drug penalties.

Kim Thomas, minority engagement consultant for the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, said the ballot initiative is helping turn out voters in Cleveland.

“Lots of black people went to jail for crack in the 1980s, and a lot of them are still there. Right now, the minority community is saying, ‘No more, no more,'” she said. “We want the same opportunity for treatment instead of jail time, and if Issue 1 is gonna speak to that, then we’re gonna support it.”

Ohio Issue 1 has largely been promoted as a response to the opioid crisis, and many commercials urging people to vote yes on Issue 1 feature white people talking about opioid abuse. Under the ballot initiative, possession of drugs would be a misdemeanor instead of felony. Penalties for drug trafficking would not change.

Some African American voters said they see it as an issue of racial justice.

“If you have blonde hair, blue eyes, you get treatment — if you don’t have that blonde hair and blue eyes, then you go to jail,” said Taneisha Williamson, 35, a medical assistant who voted for Issue 1. “I’ve seen people sentenced for five-plus years for just using drugs. Then they have it on their record, and then they can’t get hired, and then it’s a cycle: they get depressed and they fall back to the same thing.”

Darrell Johnson, 50, an out-of-work phlebotomist, cites voting rights as a primary reason for approving Issue 1.

“You might get a felony charge for marijuana and you will never vote again in your life,” he said. He sees penalties being applied unevenly, based on race. “I know white people who get caught, they get sent to programs. They can still vote. But we can’t.”

Cuyahoga County Board of Elections officials are calling voter turnout for this midterm election “historic.” Mike West, a manager with the elections board, said the county hit at least 18,000 early voters as of 2 p.m., compared with about 6,000 in the 2014 midterms and 5,000 in the 2010 midterms.

Midterm election updates: Reaction and results

Democrats took the House, Republicans held the Senate, and key races around the country were still too close to call.

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