Around 20 people of all ages congregate in a small room in Cru Gastro Lounge. They sip drinks from the bar, feast on hors d'oeuvres and chat. A small screen in the corner of the room cycles through advertisements for American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) initiatives.
Most of the conversations around the room revolve around politics — the upcoming election being, undoubtedly, the most common topic. The atmosphere is overall merry, but this merriment gives way to frustration when particular subjects — namely the 2016 election — come up.
Despite their various differences on that topic and others, the people in the room all have one thing in common: their passion for social justice.
The ACLU celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and so does its Ohio chapter. To celebrate both anniversaries, the Ohio ACLU staff is visiting 20 cities throughout Ohio on its “Twenty in ‘20” immersion tour. The group visited Cru Gastro Lounge in Oxford on Feb. 27.
The formation of the ACLU began when communism overtook Russia toward the end of World War I, and paranoia ran rampant throughout the United States. The fear that a similar coup would occur in the U.S. caused the government to take action against many innocent people it identified as “radicals.” The most famous of these actions were the “Palmer Raids” of November 1919 and January 1920 in which U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer arrested and deported thousands of leftists without warrants.
The government’s harsh treatment of these arrestees and Palmer’s lack of regard for the constitution inspired a group of people to take action. This group, which formed in 1920, became the ACLU.
The ACLU maintains chapters in all 50 states, and the Ohio chapter, which was founded in Youngstown in 1920, is one of the 15 original ACLU affiliates.
Ben Guess, executive director of ACLU Ohio, said that Ohio’s chapter has members in all 88 counties of the state. He also said that, of the 88 counties, Butler County has had one of the highest membership growth rates since 2016.
“Nationally, ACLU membership has more than quadrupled since 2016, and that’s true in Ohio, too,” Guess said. “I’ll let you fill in the blanks as to the reason for this.”
Guess said that, since the ACLU’s foundation, its main missions have been to safeguard civil liberties, advance civil rights and promote fundamental fairness for all people in the United States.
The national organization frequently litigates against organizations and individuals who violate these principles and, since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the ACLU has taken more than 250 legal actions against his administration — far higher than the number taken against Barack Obama’s administration, according to Business Insider.
Guess said that, though the number of actions taken against the current administration has been greater than usual, the ACLU has litigated against every administration since its foundation.
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ACLU Ohio’s latest major project involves protecting and expanding voting rights. Ohio has the lowest voter participation rate in the Midwest — the rate in the 2018 election was barely 50 percent — and it also has one of the lowest participation rates among young people in the U.S. — just 22 percent in 2018.
“[These statistics] are very concerning, but you have to ask, ‘Why is that? Are Ohioans more apathetic and cynical than others in the Midwest?’” Guess said. “That’s just not the case. The reality is that Ohio has the most restrictive registration processes of any state.”
Guess said that the cutoff for voter registration in Ohio — 30 days before the election — is the earliest possible cutoff allowed by federal law. He also said that Ohio lacks mechanisms other states use to make registration easier, such as automatic registration at the DMV and same-day registration.
To correct these statistics, the ACLU has begun collecting signatures for the Ohioans for Fair and Secure Elections amendment, which includes reforms such as ensuring all elections are audited, providing overseas military personnel ample time to file absentee ballots and ensuring that all polling places are accessible.
If the amendment garners 443,000 signatures, it will appear on all ballots in Ohio during this year’s election. Guess said that, though this number seems daunting, it’s reachable if everyone pitches in.
“I want your quilters’ club, I want your knitting circles, I want your local congregations and I want the student government at Miami University [to endorse the amendment],” Guess said.
Guess said that ACLU Ohio will be reaching out to members soon to educate them on how to collect signatures for this potential amendment.
Phyllis Mendenhall, who has lived in Oxford since 1984 and has been an ACLU member since college, said that the ACLU’s work is especially important in Oxford because of its high student population.
“It’s easy for students to have their rights violated because they often don’t know what their rights are,” Mendenhall said. “Sooner or later, everyone needs the ACLU.”