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Voting for Change: SPLC initiative helps underserved Southern communities transform governance through the ballot

Members of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians have good reasons to distrust the government.

The Choctaw, descendants of ancient cultures that thrived for centuries in the Mississippi River valley region, once occupied vast swaths of the Southeast. During the Revolutionary War, they fought as allies of the Continental Army – and did again in the War of 1812. Still, in the 1830s they became the first Indigenous tribe to be forced from their ancestral lands under the Indian Removal Act, a federal law that prompted a brutal act of ethnic cleansing carried out on behalf of white farmers who wanted their land to grow cotton. Tens of thousands of Choctaw and other Indigenous people were marched to lands west of the Mississippi River in what became known as the Trail of Tears.

Some Choctaw remained in Mississippi, and today the Band has just over 11,000 members living on about 35,000 acres in 10 counties.

But nearly two centuries after the Trail of Tears, they remain an underserved community, and when election season rolls around many members see little point in voting for local, state or federal candidates.

“Going back at least to the 1830s, tribal members do not trust the government of the U.S.A.,” said tribal member Cynthia Massey. “Elders speak about being cheated out of our land, lied to, forced to move, starved and much more. Seeing the importance of voting is remote and a betrayal of their shared memory with our elders.”

Tribal leaders today are working to change that.

Last year, the Band received $55,000 from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s nonpartisan Vote Your Voice (VYV) initiative – a partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta – to mobilize voters and encourage civic engagement in advance of the 2020 election. This year, it received a multiyear grant of $50,000 for the 2021 and 2022 election cycles.

The Choctaw Band is one of 64 grassroots organizations, primarily in five Southern states, that have received $23.3 million in Vote Your Voice grants. The SPLC has committed a total of $30 million from its endowment to help fund such groups through 2022.

Massey, supervisor of the Choctaw Band’s Vote Your Voice committee, said the program has helped identify tribe members who aren’t registered to vote and to reach out to tribal members, many of whom live in remote, hard-to-reach areas. They discovered that of the 6,500 voting-age members, only about one-quarter were registered.

As with all voter engagement groups, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered outreach activities. But the group found creative ways to educate and mobilize members.

As Election Day approached in 2020, the tribe – which also operates manufacturing, service, retail and tourism enterprises – hosted “drive-through” dinners during which they handed out face masks and literature. They participated in a trick-or-treat event on Halloween. They hosted a live trivia show on their Facebook channel on the eve of Election Day, with the opportunity for viewers to win prizes.

“For our Tribal members who are fluent speakers and readers, we translated phrases from English into Choctaw and utilized it in announcements, newspaper ads, T-shirts, banners, yard signs and flyers,” Massey said. “We also sponsored a Facebook challenge for Tribal members to post selfies with a message of why voting is important.”  

Organizing the South

Like the Choctaw in Mississippi, many communities of color in the South have been underserved for decades, if not centuries, continuing to this day to face racially motivated voter suppression.

The goal of Vote Your Voice is to change that. In the current era of state-sponsored vote suppression and disinformation, grassroots organizing is vital.

“We know that successful movements are based on people power,” said Seth Levi, the SPLC’s chief program strategy officer. “And the groups we selected for Vote Your Voice funding are working on the ground – person to person – knocking on doors, talking to their neighbors, engaging their communities. That makes a real difference. But these groups need money to build their capacity to do their work, and because many of them are small organizations with limited means, they often find it difficult to obtain that funding. That’s what this program is all about, working in partnership with them to accomplish meaningful, lasting change in the South.”

The grantee organizations in 2020 engaged in a broad range of activities.

In Georgia, for example, they fueled record registration and turnout. In Mississippi, they challenged voter suppression by advocating for same-day voter registration, early balloting and easy access to absentee ballots. In Florida, they not only engaged Black, Latinx and other voters of color but also fought to restore the voting rights of people who have been convicted of felonies. In Louisiana, they worked against the state’s strict rule on absentee voting. And in Alabama, they continued a long legacy of voting rights activism.

An analysis conducted by BlueLabs – a leading provider of data science services – suggests the initiative is having an impact.

In 2020, the 40 organizations that received grants for that election cycle collectively made at least 100 million contact attempts with voters – many of whom were targeted because they were unlikely to vote – through social media, texts, mail, phone and door-to-door canvassing. Thirty-two of the organizations focused their outreach on people of color, 14 on youth voters, nine on faith-based programs, five on immigrant communities and four on non-English speaking voters. Overall, 67% of the contact attempts were to Black voters, and 56% were to voters under 50.

The analysis found that, across all races, ethnicities and ages, it appears that voters who were contacted turned out in higher numbers than those who could not be reached.

“The grantee organizations last year achieved great things under enormously stressful and difficult circumstances – not only the pandemic but also because of concerted efforts by some state and local officials to suppress the vote,” Levi said. “But real change doesn’t happen overnight, and their work is about much more than one election cycle. It’s about building long-term relationships and lifting up their communities for the long haul.”

Finding equal ground

Earlier this year, Vote Your Voice awarded $200,000 to Equal Ground Education Fund, based in Orlando, Florida. The group was founded in 2019 “out of a necessity to fill the Black political leadership gap in Florida,” said Jasmine Burney-Clark, consulting director.

Equal Ground aims to train hundreds of Black community leaders, coalition partners and Black-led organizations, and the multiyear grant will help it build the capacity to accomplish that goal.

“With a leadership team that has over 30 years of Florida political experience, we became very clear about our mission to deepen relationships and partnerships in our communities by helping to convene Black-led organizations and leaders with leadership development training and strategy sessions that expand the network of Black organizers in Florida,” Burney-Clark said.

This year, in particular, the group will conduct training to help coalition partners engage in redistricting, a decennial political process in which local, state and congressional districts are redrawn. As organizers like Burney-Clark know well, the murky process often results in gerrymandered districts that intentionally dilute the voting power of communities of color, leaving them without adequate representation – and thus without a voice in the political decisions made in city halls and state legislatures.

The VYV funding will make a tremendous difference, she said. “General operating support for year-around planning and rapid response sustains us when it’s time to directly respond to attacks on our democracy and our bodies.”

Rights restoration

In New Orleans, Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) is working to restore the full civil and human rights of people who have been incarcerated in Louisiana. Founded by formerly incarcerated people, the group in 2018 successfully worked to pass Act 63, a law that restored voting rights to some 40,000 people on parole or probation.

But there was more work to be done.

Restoring the right to vote was just the beginning. What followed was a complex procedure that required returning citizens to jump through multiple hoops, and often take off work, just to register to vote. Since then, VOTE has been working to communicate and enforce the legislative victory and increase its advocacy until all people in the community have the right to vote.

Last year, VOTE was awarded two Vote Your Voice grants totaling $350,000. At election time, the group worked to register new voters and get people to the polls.

“It was one of our largest get-out-the-vote pushes thus far,” VOTE Deputy Director Bruce Reilly said. “Our goal is to increase voter registration, especially those who are newly eligible to vote under Act 636, and turnout in communities most impacted by the criminal legal system.”

Last November, VOTE and its network focused their efforts on people most impacted by incarceration – via social media, phone banking, mailers, billboards and yard signs – as well as posters in 22 probation and parole offices across the state. The group also fielded hundreds of calls from people who were having difficulty navigating the registration process.

But VOTE’s efforts go far beyond turning out the vote. In New Orleans, leaders of the engagement effort adopted a “deep canvassing” strategy to connect with citizens.

“Rather than impose a top-down strategy to enhance run-off participation, VOTE took the lead of our members and supported them with materials designed to engage the community in our critique of specific courtroom practices that most non-impacted people are not aware of,” Reilly said. “We provide this example simply to say that a broad, grassroots organization must always remain flexible, and any rigid approach to our work runs the risk of being counterproductive, where we may win the battle but lose the war.”

Winning the battle is important, but winning the war – the struggle to vote without interference or hardship, for equal representation, good governance, fair and equitable treatment – is paramount.

That’s why these groups and dozens of other grantees are doing the hard work of democracy, and it’s why Vote Your Voice is working to help them develop the capacity and staying power they need to bring about lasting change in the South.

Illustration by Mary Kate McDevitt