Home Youth activism Why Mississippi Is Ground Zero in the Suffrage Fight – Center for Public Integrity

Why Mississippi Is Ground Zero in the Suffrage Fight – Center for Public Integrity

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Following the 2020 election, more than a dozen states passed laws that make it harder for residents to vote. Mississippi was not one of them. It is not a battlefield state. And Mississippi already has some of the most restrictive election laws in the country.

These laws include rigid mail-in voting rules and disenfranchisement of those convicted of certain criminal crimes, a relic of the Jim Crow era. Now, suffrage advocates like Arekia Bennett are seeking copycat legislation from Kansas and Georgia that would make it harder for groups like hers to collect mass registrations or donate food and water to people queuing on polling day.

“When you think of Mississippi, don’t think, ‘Woe to me.’ Think, ‘OMG, we all need Mississippi so we can all be free,’” said Bennett, executive director of Mississippi Votes, a nonpartisan civic engagement organization focused on mobilizing youth and young adults. including ages 18 to 35. -year voting block.

Mississippi Votes is part of a continuum, or legacy, of resistance, Bennett said. It is rooted in the work of the 1964 Freedom Summer and civil rights leaders like Robert “Bob” Moses and Fannie Lou Hamer, who empowered black, young, and poor people to see themselves as viable in political processes. The activism led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which removed legal barriers preventing blacks from exercising their right to vote at the state and local levels.

But in 2013, the US Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the law. Decision, Shelby County vs. Holder, no longer required jurisdictions with a history of voter racial discrimination to seek federal permission before changing voting requirements. Mississippi quickly enacted a strict voter photo ID law.

“If Mississippi is okay, I think the country is okay, but I don’t think the country sees us that way,” Bennett said.

Federal legislation that supporters say would combat voter suppression and restore Voting Rights Act protections has collapsed in the Senate. Passing the legislation would be progress, of course, but it would be “only part of the battle,” Bennett said. Mississippi and other Deep Southern states would need clear federal guidance on how to implement the new rules.

“Once we factor in the Jim Crow demons that come from Mississippi soil, the country can begin to uncover the truth about itself,” Bennett said. “We can get a clearer definition and a clearer path forward, so we can define where we’re going next.”

As Democrats in Congress made a failed eleventh-hour attempt Wednesday to salvage sweeping voting reforms, the Center for Public Integrity spoke with Bennett about the meaning of democracy, the impact of the Shelby decision, and the what would happen to national and local elections. whether people convicted of crimes could vote.

*This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Arekia Bennett (Courtesy of Mississippi Votes)

Q: Mississippi is the blackest state in the country. But he has a long history as a national leader in voter suppression efforts that disproportionately affect black people and the poor. Was America ever a real democracy for the people of Mississippi?

Has America ever been a true democracy in general? No. And I’ve had this kind of intellectual debate with colleagues across the country about, what is a democracy? And are we clear about what we define as a democratic process in America? And is that representative of the people who are here now? And if this is an experience we collectively engage in, what do we agree on?

Q: In Mississippi, just under 16% of voting age, blacks are disenfranchised due to felony conviction. Among the provisions of the Freedom to Vote Act is the restoration of the federal franchise to formerly incarcerated people on their release. What would happen to elections in Mississippi if this provision were law?

I think we all think that’s good, right? But there is also a gray area that worries our political teams in organizations like Mississippi. Does it mean federal elections or does it mean statewide elections or local elections? It’s a bit vague.

Obviously, this will have a huge impact on our state and local elections if this particular law is broad enough in its language to move in that direction. Currently, there are approximately 235,000 disenfranchised people in Mississippi, or 11% [of the state’s voting age population].

If these people are able to vote in the next gubernatorial, municipal and federal elections, it could be dramatically different for Mississippi, a traditionally red state, to potentially be less red and be just as representative. Mississippi is 38% African American and our state legislature does not reflect that. We are also 50% women and our legislature does not reflect that.

Q: The 2013 Shelby decision weakened federal oversight of discriminatory election laws or practices. What kind of impact did the Shelby decision and the voter identification law that went into effect as a result have on voter turnout in Mississippi?

So [hypothetically speaking] I’m a single black mom living deep in Yazoo and don’t have a car. And the closest DMV is Jackson. There is also no public transport. The courthouse and all those other places where people say I could walk, I can’t. I have a baby, a hip baby. Where am I going?

I don’t think people see how this deprives black people who live in rural communities, who don’t have the resources to get from point A to point B.

In rural areas in general, this particular court ruling does not take into account the ordinary person who has been marginalized and otherwise ousted by the state legislature, because that is not their reality and they do not affect these people . But for me and the work we do at [Mississippi Votes] and other organizations we are in community with, these are conversations we need to have every day. We must ask the legislature or any body to consider these people as human beings, as viable assets to our growing electorate.

I don’t have the answer on how we get to that level of freedom outside of reimagining what we hope our democracy is and can be. And frankly, until we change some of the ways that our Congress and these Deep South legislatures are made up, and run these people [for office] who have these lived experiences and today’s understanding of how people live their lives. Or we dismantle the whole system all together.


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