‘Connecting the dots’: Southern Echo takes on Mississippi voter suppression laws
Mississippian Brenda Hyde remembers well the heartbreaking experience she had while voting in the 2020 presidential election.
“In my neighborhood there was a very long line,” she said. “Hours. I stayed in line, but saw people giving up and leaving. It was dark and cold. A truck drove by with megaphones, driving fast, covered in Trump flags, support stickers and wooden signs [that read]: ‘Make America Great Again.’ They were loud, screaming. The police were called. It was a form of intimidation.
“I was wearing a cute black t-shirt with a print on the back: ‘They’re trying to shut me up. Scare me. Remove me. Erase me. And yet I vote. On the front, it is written: ‘And yet I vote.’ »
A white man got upset and started talking with other white people around him, Hyde recalled.
“He was angry that I was wearing this shirt. It’s an empowerment telling blacks and browns – that white people try to bully us, but we vote anyway.
“Some white people get mad when they see the shirt and say, ‘Why are you splitting up? When we wear these shirts, we’re not saying white votes don’t matter, but we’ve experienced the suppression of black voters, and we’ve gone from not having the right to vote to fighting to vote. It’s a question of power.”
Hyde is the deputy director of the Jackson-based nonprofit Southern Echo Inc., an intergenerational development, education and leadership training organization. Southern Echo works with individuals, groups and other grassroots organizations to dismantle institutional and systemic racism in our educational, economic, environmental, political and health care systems. Her civic engagement work with black and brown communities focuses on organizing and educating the public, particularly voting, enumeration and redistricting.
During this redistricting and election cycle, Southern Echo educates and trains grassroots individuals and organizations on how to draw and promote fair and equitable redistricting maps, engage in advocacy activities to vote (GOTV) and increase voter participation in elections.
Southern Echo is among 39 voter outreach organizations in the Deep South receiving more than $4.6 million in funding through the new round of Vote Your Voice grants announced in August. The initiative is a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to increase voter registration, participation and civic engagement among communities of color in the Greater South.
The SPLC has pledged to invest $100 million in Vote Your Voice grants through 2032.
journey to change
Southern Echo received an additional $120,000 over last year’s $400,000 grant. This grant largely funded the organization’s 365 VOTE, a campaign that included a strong grassroots and education effort to organize voters. It included training poll workers and poll watchers, and sensitizing communities on the importance of voting, voter registration, voter identification, mail-in voting and voter purging. .
Sixty percent of the new grant will support the continuation of these efforts, but in 2022-2023, Southern Echo will increase education on voter ID requirements and help communities deal with voter roll purges, which affect many disproportionately communities of color. The organization will conduct voter restoration workshops and trainings for community members who have been incarcerated and disenfranchised. And it will closely monitor polling station closures to notify communities of any changes to their polling locations.
Southern Echo will use the remaining 40% of the grant for its Fair Redistricting Map Education Program. The organization has a 12-member redistricting team, including eight redistricting fellows and four staff, that covers 58 of Mississippi’s 82 counties. The redistricting team encourages communities to participate in the redistricting process, analyze data and maps, and develop alternative community redistricting plans.
Rachel Mayes, executive director of Southern Echo, called the redistricting “a path to democracy and policy change”.
The organization uses the “connect the dots” metaphor in its work to help black and brown communities understand the connection between enumeration, fair redistricting and voting and how each impacts the overall quality of life. This knowledge strengthens the resolve of voters of color to overcome more than a century of concerted suppression and deprivation of black and brown voters.
“As leaders and organizers, we need to help people navigate their personal experiences as well as what they see in the media and reality of January 6.e. We need to help address their concerns, motivate and inspire hope, so they believe there is still POWER in the VOTE,” Mayes said.
Getting there is no small feat in a state that has the highest percentage of black residents in the nation, but whose history of black and brown voter suppression remains one of the most racist repudiations. from the country of 14e Amendment equal protection clause.
As recently as 2020, Mississippi ranked first among states with 10.6% of its voting-age population disenfranchised due to felony convictions, and third in the nation for its 16 % of black residents of voting age disenfranchised, according to a Sentencing Project study.
Southern states tend to have the most restrictive election laws, historically and today.
Mississippi is among the five states with the most voter restrictions. Its voter identification laws are strict and discriminatory. They need a driver’s license with photo ID, a U.S. passport, or a free voter ID card issued by a circuit court clerk to applicants in person with accepted forms of proof of identity.
The voter ID law is particularly burdensome for the black community in Mississippi, where disenfranchisement remains structurally entrenched nearly six decades after the end of the Jim Crow era. The state ranks 48th among states in the number of registered cars per capita, and many black people do not have driver’s licenses because they cannot afford a vehicle. Some do not have other accepted forms of proof of identity because their birth at home by midwives has not been officially registered.
In addition, the state’s confusing and limited mail-in and one-day in-person voting, lack of drop boxes and online voting, and voter intimidation at the polls impose more hurdles. at the polls.
Today, blacks make up 38% of the state’s population; while 56% of the population is non-Hispanic white, according to the 2020 U.S. Census.
In the 2020 presidential election, Mississippi ranked among the bottom states for voter turnout. At the same time, early and absentee voting jumped across the country, from 44% in 2016 to 69% in 2020. Black voters in general voted early or absentee at an even higher rate of 69.6 %, surpassed only by Pacific Islander Asian Americans. and Latinx voters. While the COVID-19 pandemic was a major contributor to the increase, early mail-in voting for the 2018 midterm elections was the highest yet. The large numbers of early votes for the 2022 midterm elections indicate a continuing trend.
But in Mississippi, the voter ID law makes it difficult for many potential voters who don’t have a driver’s license or other photo ID and must appear before a circuit court clerk.
“This process isn’t easy and can be frustrating for people,” Mayes said. “You’re supposed to be able to just walk in and say you don’t have photo ID and get one, but people are intimidated to go to the circuit clerk’s office for fear of being confronted with Questions. It is difficult for people. »
“Voting should be easy, right? You shouldn’t have to go through what we do to vote. This is just another tactic to keep people away from the polls. It’s consistent with an ugly history of voter suppression in Mississippi,” Mayes said.
Fight against gerrymandering
In the years since 2018, when Southern Echo began its “Connecting the Dots” trainings on voting, counting and redistricting, the organization has helped communities draw more than 70 alternative redistricting maps. (Every 10 years after the end of the U.S. Census, district maps at the federal, state, and local levels are supposed to be reviewed based on population and demographic changes.)
Now that Southern Echo has resumed in-person education and training, the organization plans to help even more communities develop alternative redistricting plans. The organization trains communities to negotiate directly with city, county and local government governing bodies as officials begin the process of drawing a new or revised map. If successful, communities will act more like collaborators rather than angry critics when unfair maps are presented in public hearings – often with a restricted public comment period before a vote.
“In the past, under pre-clearance, Southern states with a history of voter suppression could send both a community map and the jurisdiction map to the Department of Justice, who would then decide which map to choose,” said explained Mayes. “Now the community cannot send their card to the Department of Justice.”
Mayes noted that while community activists have failed to challenge maps that deny fair representation of black and brown voters at the state and federal levels, they have been more successful at the local level. “We are a majority at the city and county level where the voting strength of minorities has not been diluted,” she said.
“When we talk about redistricting and how it relates to voting and strategic values around voting, we are connecting the dots. “How can we come together as a community to organize to get the vote?” ” Mayes said is the current issue, “because everything is connected. “
Image above: Southern Echo, based in Jackson, Mississippi, is one of 39 voter education organizations receiving funding from the Vote Your Vote initiative, a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta. Since 2018, Southern Echo has helped communities draw 70 alternative redistricting maps. (Courtesy of Southern Echo)