Portage County shipped 30,000 absentee ballots this week. We spoke with some who voted in person.

Lorene McMahon and Rodney Fleshman prepare to vote after confirming their identities to a polling station worker inside the Portage County Board of Elections on Tuesday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager
Lorene McMahon and Rodney Fleshman prepare to vote after confirming their identities to a polling station worker inside the Portage County Board of Elections on Tuesday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

Portage County shipped 30,000 absentee ballots this week. We spoke with some who voted in person.

A local addition recovery group has helped register voters, and local organizers of both parties convened on election headquarters in Ravenna

The Portage County Democrats and Republicans took up posts near the polls Tuesday for Ohio’s first day of early voting, but one group stuck out for its lack of political affiliation: Open United Recovery Place, a support group for those recovering from and impacted by addiction.

Open United Recovery Place members across the political spectrum joined the line of voters stretching around the Portage County Board of Elections headquarters in Ravenna, waiting to cast their in-person absentee ballots.

The group, in partnership with the League of Women Voters, registered more than a dozen voters leading up to the 2020 election and has since urged its members to vote. Some people who’ve struggled with addiction have felony convictions, organizers said, so the group helped re-register them, as Ohio law requires.

Open United Recovery Place Executive Director Jessika Easterling said voting pushes those recovering from addiction to engage with their communities and empowers them to participate in civil society, two important aspects of overcoming addiction.

“People who are in recovery have a lot of times been out of the general community, and a lot of them are rejoining, and in a lot of cases joining better than they were before,” said Pat Heeman, a member of Open United Recovery Place’s leadership team. “What’s more civic than voting?”

Lorene McMahon and Rodney Fleshman prepare to vote after confirming their identities to a polling station worker inside the Portage County Board of Elections on Tuesday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

Founded in 2018, Open United Recovery Place hosts open, free activities like meditation and kickboxing as well as support group sessions every day while also pointing members toward other ways to engage in the community.

The group holds meetings at churches, including Lake Brady United Methodist Church in Kent, but organizers hope to finish up renovations on their new home — a house on state Route 59 across from Walmart — before the end of November. The house, gifted by the Haven of Portage County, will serve as Open United Recovery Place’s offices.

“One of the first things you’ll see when you come into the Open United Recovery space is that we provide the opportunity to give back to the community and to feel empowered in the community that we live in,” Easterling said. “And I think that’s just, it makes the biggest difference, that sense of purpose, that sense of, ‘I’m worthwhile. I’m an active, productive citizen,’ you know what I mean? Those are messages that we didn’t hear for a long time, and crossing that bridge is really empowering, and it’s really important to recovery.”

Lorene McMahon and Rodney Fleshman prepare to vote after confirming their identities to a polling station worker inside the Portage County Board of Elections on Tuesday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

Portage County sent out 29,789 absentee ballots Tuesday, for a total of 31,684. Nearly half of that total registered as nonpartisan, 11,353 as Democrat and 4,605 as Republican. So far, Portage County has issued 1,447 in-person ballots.

Cameron Oslin, a young first-time voter, waited in line with his mother, Katie Matthews, who has been working as a Covid-19 nurse. Matthews said her frontline experience with the pandemic brought her more in tune with the politics around it. When asked what brought him out to vote, Oslin said, “Just everything, I guess, that’s going on.”

“If you have an opinion about it, I think you should express it at the polls and not just tell your family or complain,” he said. “Actually do something.”

Lorene McMahon and Rodney Fleshman prepare to vote after confirming their identities to a polling station worker inside the Portage County Board of Elections on Tuesday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager
Lorene McMahon and Rodney Fleshman prepare to vote after confirming their identities to a polling station worker inside the Portage County Board of Elections on Tuesday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager

Bruce Ribelin, a Portage County Democrats volunteer who served on Ravenna City Council for 16 years and taught U.S. Government for 27 years, said he thinks this election is among the most important in the nation’s history.

“I think it’s the biggest in my lifetime simply because I think it’s going to determine what direction are we going in,” he said. “Are we going to be an authoritarian society, or are we going to remain a democracy? I believe in the constitution. I think it’s served us well, and I think it’s being bent in many different directions right now.”

Portage County Republicans volunteer Dick Penton handed out sample Republican ballots to voters as they drove into the parking lot. He said he doesn’t agree with all of Trump’s methods and policies, but he favors him over alternatives. When asked about controversy surrounding voting this election, he said he thinks there will be more confusion than blatant dishonesty.

“Elections are fair. That’s the great thing about America,” Penton said. “Whichever side wins, I mean, the other side gets to stew on it for four years and then try to change it later. I mean, that’s the way our society goes, and it’s worked pretty much so far despite all the warts and pimples on it.”

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