Skip to main content Accessibility

The South’s Got Now | Decidimos campaign spotlights power of every vote

Black voters in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, were outraged when a state judge ruled last December that their favored candidate for sheriff, Henry Whitehorn, had to submit to a third election after he won a runoff by one vote and a recount confirmed his one-vote margin of victory.

Throwing out the election results particularly stung because Whitehorn would not only be the first Black sheriff in Caddo Parish, but one of only a handful of Black sheriffs in Louisiana history.

Whitehorn is a Black man with decades of Louisiana law enforcement experience, including 10 years as a U.S. marshal after President Barack Obama nominated him for the position. His challenger was a lawyer without law enforcement credentials.

“We were aghast that they wouldn’t uphold the recount,” said Billy Anderson, the North Louisiana organizer for the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice. “Sometimes an election can come down to race.”

Close elections that prompt recounts and legal challenges are hardly uncommon. They often result from poor voter turnout that can leave qualified candidates without decisive victories.

That’s one reason why the Southern Poverty Law Center last month launched The South’s Got Now | Decidimos (which means “we decide”), a bilingual voter engagement campaign in English and Spanish. Through the November elections, the campaign will focus on educating and energizing Black and Latinx voters ages 18-29 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi.

In describing the campaign, SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang noted the potential power of the youth vote.

“Young people have always been on the front lines of progress in the U.S.,” Huang said.
“That’s why lawmakers try so hard to take the right to vote away from them, especially young people of color. In the face of recent anti-democracy efforts, our campaign is engaging Black and Brown communities in the Deep South in reclaiming and building upon their collective voting power. Our votes have the power to change history – and young Southerners of color are poised to lead that change.”

Digital outreach

One of the campaign’s first initiatives – “Road to 60: Reigniting the Fight for Freedom” – is led by the SPLC’s Mississippi state office. In the state’s 2023 gubernatorial race, challenger Brandon Presley lost by 26,619 votes – a strong sign that moderate and progressive voters could flip state election outcomes if the SPLC and other voting rights organizations persuade Black and other voters of color to cast ballots in November.

The SPLC’s Alabama state office launched its Alabama’s Got Now: Beyond the Vote campaign earlier this month.

“Year after year, many state and local elections are decided by narrow margins of only a few hundred, or even a dozen votes,” said SPLC Chief Strategy Officer Seth Levi. “In fact, elections decided by just one vote are not uncommon. Your decision to show up and vote or stay home and sit out the election can literally decide who your mayor, state senator, or Congress member is. And sometimes your vote not only decides the winner, it makes history, as in Caddo Parish.”

The South’s Got Now | Decidimos tagline makes perfect sense for a digitally driven, young voter education campaign that aims to build a new generation of habitual voters who will cast ballots in every election, no matter how local.

“We want to reach high-potential young voters in the South who don’t feel their vote matters,” said SPLC Chief Communications Officer Julian Teixeira. “They told us in focus groups that they don’t have the information and knowledge to register and vote, so we are going to give it to them.”

Word bubble The South’s Got Now Learn More button

Since young adults now access most of their news and information from social media sites such as Instagram, X (formerly Twitter) and TikTok, the SPLC will use content on those platforms to drive viewers to The South’s Got Now webpage. There, they will find practical information such as how to register to vote before their state’s deadline, what information they will need to vote and other ways to participate in the civic process.

The campaign will also partner with SPLC Vote Your Voice (VYV) grantees – grassroots organizations like Power Coalition for Equity and Justice that are already working to mobilize voters – and with established partners at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and Latinx community-serving institutions to offer voter toolkits, sample ballots and support for community events and candidate forums.

Vote Your Voice is an SPLC initiative, conducted in partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, that 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 that do voter engagement in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi.

“Many youth feel disenfranchised,” Teixeira said. “Our The South’s Got Now | Decidimos campaign tells them that their vote does have power and matters. It’s the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and now is their turn to increase their voting power – not lose their rights but to increase them.”

‘Get this done!’

Black voters had largely stayed home for the Nov. 18, 2023, runoff between Caddo Parish sheriff candidates John Nickelson and Henry Whitehorn.

Fewer than 20,000 Black people cast ballots out of a parish population of 226,000. The number is particularly telling considering that the parish has a slim Black majority and its major city of Shreveport has a 57% Black population.

“We were alarmed by the low Black early-voter turnout [in the runoff],” said Louisiana NAACP President Mike McClanahan. “So, I contacted organizations around the state and our boots on the ground in Caddo Parish and said, ‘We have to organize, hold town halls in churches, talk to voters in restaurants and hair salons, galvanize people to vote, because we have to get this done! We can’t leave elections up to the judges in black robes. Masses of voters need to get out and vote.’”

Get out the vote they did. As the result of a massive, strategic campaign, the groups ultimately increased Black overall voting in the March election, giving Whitehorn a decisive victory of more than 4,000 votes to become the first Black sheriff in Caddo Parish history.

The all-hands-on-deck campaign can be distilled into one word: more. More texting, more canvassing, more door-knocking, more phone calls, more education, more absentee ballot instruction, more “strolls to the polls,” and more engagement with church ministers and fraternities and sororities at the state’s HBCUs.

To counter low turnout, which activists partly attribute to the state’s atypical frequency of elections – sometimes five in a year – McClanahan said that it was imperative to give Black voters a sense of the historic nature of the election and to “increase excitement to galvanize voters.” (The SPLC Action Fund, the organization’s 501(c)(4) affiliate, endorsed Whitehorn in all three elections.)

Whitehorn’s platform of legal justice and incarceration reform was just what Black voters had long demanded. His opponent prioritized crime fighting and told voters that the use of “stop and frisk” was an acceptable police tactic “so long as it’s not racially discriminatory.” Numerous studies of the policy, however, have concluded that it is discriminatory toward Black men.

At the time of Whitehorn’s election, only four out of 64 Louisiana sheriffs were Black, though Black Louisianans comprise over 32% of the total state population. A 2023 SPLC report, “Out of Balance,” examined the lack of diversity among the state’s law enforcement officers and prosecutors.

“I was telling my teams they have the power in their hands to change history,” McClanahan said.

Fighting low turnout

Both the Power Coalition and the Urban League of Louisiana used Vote Your Voice field strengthening grants to fund their campaigns – $50,000 and about $150,000, respectively.

The Urban League’s campaign fell under its “Wake Up Gaux Vote” campaign, with the spelling of “go” a nod to the state’s French and Creole influence.

To conduct the organization’s intensive voter outreach, the Urban League’s director of advocacy, John West, turned to Deep South Grassroots, an organizing consultancy founded by Omari J. Ho-Sang. Ho-Sang is also founder and director of the Shreveport-based nonprofit All Streets All People, which mobilizes organizers to drive voting and deliver better lives for Shreveport residents.

Ho-Sang’s team of 18 talked with more than 16,000 residents of Caddo Parish, many of whom they targeted using data from Black Voters Matter’s registered voter system. But she especially wanted to reach residents 18-35 who were not in the system. To that end, her team canvassed large apartment complexes, local colleges, restaurants and stores such as Dollar Mania, a beauty supply store popular with young potential voters. Her team offered store gift cards to anyone who registered or pledged to vote.

The Whitehorn election illustrates why some Black voters may have fact-based reasons to believe that their vote doesn’t count: Their choice candidate won the runoff election, but a judge tossed out the results, underscoring their belief that Black votes are not treated fairly.

“A lot of people we ran into said they don’t vote because they don’t see results,” Ho-Sang said. “They pointed to what happened to Whitehorn in the runoff as proof. We gave them examples of people power – like the chronic slumlord situation in Shreveport, where the city is finally prosecuting them for high rates of evictions and unsafe conditions because residents kept the pressure on. We also told them how a progressive sheriff would reduce the prison population at Caddo Parish Correctional Center.”

‘Never doubt your vote’

One of the most important one-vote margin elections in recent memory happened in 2017 in Virginia. Republicans had held the majority in the House of Delegates for 17 years, but in the November election a Democrat gained the advantage before a recount showed that the Republican incumbent was actually ahead by one vote. A judicial challenge, two subsequent recounts and, in the end, a coin toss kept House control under the Republican Party.

In response to the chaos surrounding the election, the House passed a law to limit vote recounts to one.

In Warner Robins, Georgia, a 2023 election for an at-large, citywide council seat also came down to one vote when white incumbent Charlie Bibb prevailed against a Black candidate, L. Ellis Carter.

Immediately after the election, the Houston County Board of Elections investigated Bibb for allegedly violating voting law by wearing his campaign T-shirt inside a polling location late on election night and speaking with a poll worker. A state investigation is pending while Bibb sits on the council.

“I was ahead over 100 votes with early voting and absentee ballots going into Election Day. I was shocked and in disbelief because the race was so close,” Carter told the SPLC. “You hope there was integrity in the vote. That’s why I didn’t fight the outcome and say that the election was fraudulent. I thought the race should be decided by the voters.”

The election was the first after the city’s newly reapportioned voting map gave Black voters a reasonable probability of exerting more political power, yet less than 10% of registered voters cast a ballot, according to Carter.

Carter said he cares too much about his city not to run again.

“Next time, I’ll come out harder. I’ll talk to more voters on the street. I’ll encourage more voters to exercise their right to vote using absentee ballots if they’re unable to make it to the polls during early voting or Election Day. Now I tell people, ‘Never doubt your vote. Every vote does matter. Believe me. I know!’”

Illustration at top by LindseyMadeThis.