Posts tagged with "voting rights"

Mississippi Group Aims to Increase Black Women’s Voting Power

By Safiya Charles

It’s not by chance that Cassandra Welchlin leads an organization focused on advocating for the needs of Black women. The social worker, organizer and now executive director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable (MS BWR), learned the relationship between power and choice at an early age.

Welchlin is the daughter of a single mother who earned a little over $2 an hour cleaning office buildings in downtown Jackson. Her mother couldn’t afford child care, so Welchlin hid in a utility closet as her mom worked. It was in that closet where Welchlin said she learned her ABCs.

“My mother worked across the street from the state Capitol where mostly white male legislators had the power to write a bill into law to increase her wages,” said Welchlin. “I saw that struggle and developed empathy. I may not have known the words to describe it back then, but I understood that this was about women’s economic security and Black women having dignity in their work.”

Today, she leads a group that works to shift power at the voting booth and at the policy table by advocating for policies and leaders that will improve opportunities for Black women and girls to make the best choices for their families and communities. Its work to advance women’s economic security, increase voter participation and support Black women in leadership has earned the nonprofit a $600,000 Vote Your Voice (VYV) grant over three years to support its operations.

The Southern Poverty Law Center initiative, conducted in partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, supports local, grassroots organizations that are committed to strengthening democracy and voting rights in communities of color in the Deep South. The SPLC has pledged $100 million in grants over the next decade to support organizations in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

“We can’t overstate how critical this work is,” said Robin Brule, the SPLC’s Vote Your Voice program officer. “We’re working with groups on the ground that are place-based and incredibly knowledgeable about their own communities, that have built strong, trusted relationships. They’re working to remove discriminatory barriers to the ballot and are committed to expanding civic engagement and participation, operating, unfortunately, with very few resources to ensure every voter has a voice.”

SHE NEEDED HELP

Cassandra Welchlin is executive director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, recipient of a three-year, $600,000 Vote Your Voice grant. (Credit: Jonathan Collins)

The need for this work in Mississippi is undeniable.

Black women in the state who work full-time, year-round earn 57 cents for every dollar white men make, while part-time, part-year workers earn only 51 cents, according to data from the National Women’s Law Center. Child care remains a significant barrier to economic advancement, particularly for single mothers in a state where almost 50% of children are raised in single-parent households – among the highest share in the nation.

Access to adequate health and reproductive care is also a major challenge for many women and families, as the state has for years refused to expand Medicaid coverage for low-wage earning people. Also, last year, when the federal government ended the COVID-19 public health emergency, the state started purging beneficiaries from its rolls.

Monique Harvin came to MS BWR after the birth of her fifth child. Despite having undergone a surgical procedure to prevent future pregnancies, doctors told Harvin she had a tubular pregnancy, a potentially life-threatening condition for mother and baby.

“It was stressful – emotionally, spiritually, and on my body,” said Harvin. “It was hard for me to accept.”

After a difficult pregnancy, and the delivery of a healthy baby, Harvin’s mental health swiftly declined. She felt tired and depressed. Her children’s father worked out of town, leaving her to juggle four young children, a newborn and other responsibilities. She needed help.

Yet Harvin said she couldn’t access any substantial postpartum services through Medicaid because she no longer qualified during a short period following her child’s birth. Before March of last year, Mississippi women could receive only two months of postpartum Medicaid care.

In a passing conversation, a co-worker told Harvin that MS BWR might be interested in hearing her story and could possibly offer some help. Harvin reached out, and she joined what would become a series of meetings and conversations about Black and Latinx women’s struggles seeking quality health care in the state.

“I felt immediately like, ‘Monique, you’re not alone,’” Harvin said. “I got a chance to get it out, to express my concerns, my thoughts, my feelings. Something that had once caused me trauma, depression and anxiety, I could be open about it in a safe environment. Not only sharing but hearing other women’s stories and making connections really helped me to overcome those barriers.”

The initiative, Mississippi Voices Project, which addresses access to health care for Black and Latinx women, is just one of the ways MS BWR aims to translate the individual needs and stories of women into political action. The organization also runs a program, called Quarters Because We Care Project, that provides laundry services to low-income families throughout the year.

“We leverage that as an opportunity to do all the work that we do,” said Welchlin. “We do voter registration in the laundromat. My mother is also a retired teacher. She conducts school in the laundromat. While the moms are washing, she takes their babies and reads with them.”

WE ARE THE PEOPLE

The nonprofit also provides rent and utility support to mothers in need, while offering training opportunities for women interested in political leadership and youth civic engagement.

Khloe Robinson is a 10th grader who became involved with MS BWR when her mother brought her along to some community cleanup events the group held around Jackson. She’s now part of a youth leadership team that works to help young people understand the power of voting and ensure that when they’re old enough to cast a ballot, they’re motivated to head to the polls.

“We see a lot of politicians who don’t really represent us, that’s why making sure Black people get out and vote is so important,” said Robinson. “Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable is really focused on making Jackson a better place. They really try to get into the community and inform people about what we can do to make this city better.”

The SPLC grant will help MS BWR expand its existing work outside of the Jackson metro area, to conduct surveys and polling, and to continue voting rights and youth engagement work year-round. One of the group’s aims is to increase participation in down-ballot elections that have a pronounced impact on local communities.

“We are thrilled about this grant,” Welchlin said. “So often, small nonprofits don’t get the recognition, don’t get the dollars. Yet we’re the ones that are closest to the people. We are the people; our families are the people. So, this is personal. We still haven’t gotten to where we want to, but we’ve grown so much. This means a lot.”

Here’s a look at Mississippi’s other Vote Your Voice grant recipients and how they plan to use this funding to strengthen democracy:

CHILDREN’S DEFENSE FUND – GRANT AMOUNT: $300,000

The Children’s Defense Fund works to level the playing field for all children by advocating for policies that improve their lives and by creating community partnerships and programs to empower children and their families – with a particular focus on the needs of children in families with low incomes, children of color and children with disabilities. Through this $300,000 grant, the organization aims to boost civic engagement, voter education, registration and mobilization among young people, returning citizens, individuals purged from voter rolls and sporadic voters by hosting community workshops and forums; door-to-door canvassing; a targeted issued-based communications campaign; and digital engagement.

MISSISSIPPI CENTER FOR REENTRY – GRANT AMOUNT: $50,000

The Mississippi Center for Reentry provides life skills and job training, GED education, career planning and job placement assistance to formerly incarcerated people to assist them in reentering society. Since 2022, the group has provided voter education and held registration drives in Mississippi prisons, educating more than 400 individuals and assisting more than 150 currently incarcerated people in completing voter registration applications. Through this grant, the organization aims to increase civic engagement among formerly incarcerated Mississippians of color in nonmetro areas and to advocate for policy change within the corrections system.

MISSISSIPPI STATE CONFERENCE NAACP – GRANT AMOUNT: $495,000

The Mississippi State Conference NAACP is a chapter of the historic civil rights organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Since 1909, its mission has been to eliminate racial discrimination and ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of all people. Since 2012, the Mississippi State Conference NAACP has registered more than 50,000 new voters. With this grant, it seeks to increase the voting participation rates of Black people throughout the state by increasing knowledge and awareness on issues impacting the community such as health care access and Medicaid expansion, minimum wage, and criminal justice reform.

PARENTS’ CAMPAIGN RESEARCH AND EDUCATION FUND – GRANT AMOUNT: $330,000

The Parents’ Campaign Research and Education Fund is an alliance of moms, dads, grandparents, teachers, community leaders and citizens who advocate for Mississippi’s public school students. The organization provides objective research and analysis of public education policies and legislation to state leaders, policymakers and the public. With this SPLC grant, the organization aims to mobilize Mississippi public school supporters in critical elections and to engage and coach local advocates to become agents of civic change who can directly influence leaders and institutions that determine the quality of their children’s education and economic and civic opportunities. The group will be particularly focused on engaging communities of color, rural communities, young and single parents, and low-wealth households.

WE MUST VOTE – GRANT AMOUNT: $150,000

We Must Vote is a voter mobilization organization created to help people understand the power of their vote by providing education, registration and transportation assistance to underserved communities and people who have rarely or never voted. Over the last several years, it has registered more than 21,000 voters and assisted 255 formerly incarcerated people in restoring their voting rights. With the grant, We Must Vote aims to increase voter turnout among Black citizens in rural communities who have limited access to resources, through targeted campaigns, door-to-door canvassing and voting rights restoration efforts.

ONE VOICE – GRANT AMOUNT: $400,000

One Voice is a nonprofit working to democratize public policy in Mississippi. The organization advocates for the representation of historically silenced communities in spaces of power and works with communities to increase their awareness and capacity to create change and build power. With this SPLC grant, One Voice will work to expand voting rights in the state, push back against voter suppression laws and increase civic engagement among young Latinx voters in rural areas.

MISSISSIPPI VOTES – GRANT AMOUNT: $500,000

Mississippi Votes is a youth-led intergenerational organization invested in moving Mississippi forward through outreach that empowers young people, encourages civic engagement and educates communities on voting rights through place-based grassroots organizing. Through this grant, Mississippi Votes will increase its voter registration activities among low-propensity Black and Latinx voters, host youth policy summits, increase its field operations and door-knocking initiatives, and continue to advocate for electoral transparency in state politics.

SPLC Sues Louisiana City on Behalf of NAACP, Challenging Unfair Voting Map

Every 10 years, political bodies across the U.S. go through the process of reconciling population changes detected in the latest census with district maps that govern how voters elect public officials. Sometimes populations grow in some districts and shrink in others as people take on new jobs, start new families or follow trends in migration. The reapportionment of districts is supposed to ensure that voters maintain equal power at the ballot box, regardless of where they live.

In Abbeville, Louisiana, voting rights advocates have spent years trying to get the City Council to redraw its districts to comply with the legal requirements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 14th Amendment. But that has not happened. Instead, after the 2020 census, the city kept a map based on the 2010 census – when the Black population was just over 40% – that has just one Black-majority district out of four districts, even though Black people now make up nearly 43% of the city’s residents. During the same period, the white population fell from 53% to 49%.

In Abbeville, as elsewhere, the makeup of voting maps can have a very tangible impact on the lives of voters. Local officials determine everything from whether a street is paved to how far someone has to travel to visit a park or playground – and how well maintained those public works might be. “There’s a complete difference or two different worlds in the city of Abbeville,” said Linda Cockrell, president of the Vermilion Parish NAACP chapter in Abbeville. “I was told that in the higher-up neighborhoods, city workers are in these neighborhoods at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning washing down the roads, removing trash, and everything else.”

Frustrated by the city’s action, the NAACP chapter, represented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, has filed suit in federal court to force the city to adopt a more balanced voting map. The lawsuit cites the principle of “one person, one vote” that is laid out in the 14th Amendment and requires districts within a political subdivision to be roughly equal in population.

“Abbeville City Council’s decision to not reapportion following the 2020 U.S. census denies equal representation,” said SPLC Staff Attorney Ahmed Soussi, who filed the complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana on Oct. 17.“This is an abuse of power that undermines the voting rights of the residents of District B, including Vermilion NAACP members. We are suing to end this illegal and harmful practice.”

FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

The suit follows years of discussions, hearings and outreach over two city administrations. Reapportionment generally begins once the U.S. Census Bureau releases its block-level maps, which can be a year to 18 months after the national count is finished. Because of the COVID pandemic and the political disarray surrounding the presidential election, the 2020 effort faced some challenges.

After the city of Abbeville began its reapportionment process, it received a report from its demographic firm, Sellers and Associates, that laid out maps showing a population drop of more than 1,000 residents, from 12,257 in 2010 to 11,186 in 2020. Council members and then-Mayor Mark Piazza claimed the numbers were wrong because the census takers did not do a “good job.” Instead of moving forward with the reapportionment process with a public comment period and adoption of new maps, the council stalled efforts until a year later. Last December, the council decided to use the existing map from 2010. Despite having no data to back up the claim, a representative of the Sellers demographic firm claimed that the 2020 census was not accurate.

Neither the council members nor the consultants said how many people the city may have lost or from which districts. The 2020 census data showed a deviation of 19% among some districts. Throughout the years-long debate, members of the NAACP chapter had presented maps with districts that had little or no deviation in population. Additionally, the SPLC presented a map with a far less egregious 6% deviation.

And although current Mayor Roslyn White said the city was “potentially going to make a change,” that did not occur. It is also not the first time the city has been forced to reapportion due to deviations in the size of its council districts. In 2010, the council map showed a 50% deviation, making the city apply for preclearance of its 2010 map under the requirements of the Voting Rights Act in place at the time.

RACIAL GERRYMANDERING

When most people think of voting district maps, the idea of gerrymandering – the process of drawing oddly shaped districts to create voting blocs that favor a particular candidate or party – is the first thing to come to mind. But there are other concerns addressed in federal voting law. In this case, the lawsuit specifically cites the “one person, one vote” provision of the 14th Amendment. Under that clause, people in voting districts should have the same or at least similar voting power. To accomplish that, districts should have roughly the same population. Generally, anything over 10% is considered per se, or “in itself,” unlawful.

Because the City Council simply adopted its old map, a district with fewer people in Abbeville can still elect one council member and have the same representative voice as a person voting in a district with a larger population. For example, under the current map, the median district size should be 2,797 residents. District B gained 10%, rising to 3,086 people, according to the 2020 census. District C, however, lost 9% of its population, dropping to 2,544. So theoretically the vote of a person in District C now carries more weight than one of a voter in District B.

The city has four council districts and one citywide at-large district, for a total of five council seats. Of those, District A and District C each saw losses between the 2010 and 2020 census while districts B and D saw increases. Both A and C are majority-white districts while District D is predominantly Black. In District B, the majority of voters (53.7%) are people of color, but the white population is within a few percentage points.

Overall, 38.5% of Abbeville’s voting-age residents are Black, as are nearly 43% of the residents overall. But those Black residents are mostly packed into one of four single-member council districts, District D, which has a 78.2% minority population. That leaves the others with majority-white or near-parity populations. The council also has a fifth member who is elected on an at-large basis.

FORCING THE ISSUE

SPLC lawyers have reached out to the city of Abbeville with offers to settle the claims without resorting to litigation. Those offers were roundly rejected. “The council maintains the opinion that the current districts are substantially equal, and there was not substantial change requiring redistricting,” City Attorney Bart Broussard said in his response to the latest offer to settle the claim without litigation.

But his response does not address the fact that there is a discrepancy in the size of the districts that violates voting laws. It also does not address the challenges that Black voters already face, like access to polling places and efforts to limit the number of days early voting is allowed. Cockrell said apathy among Black voters is part of the problem when it comes to overcoming racial gerrymandering. “There’s a lot of Black people that’s going around telling other Black folks, ‘What you want to vote for? You’re voting for nothing. You’re not gonna get nothing,’” she said.

One positive note was the election of Councilman at Large Carlton Campbell, which, along with District D Councilwoman Terry Broussard, gave the Black community two voices on the council. But having a voting minority elect a candidate of their choice for an at-large seat is not always a given. “I would like to see two Black districts,” Cockrell said. “I would like to see the city look at every citizen the same regardless of their financial status. We have a lot of work that needs to be done.”

By Dwayne Fatherree, Investigative Journalist