Volunteers get voters to fill out information at a table at Tougaloo College.
Mississippi Votes youth civic engagement coordinators and a student volunteer register voters at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, on National Voter Registration Day, September 28, 2021. (Courtesy of Mississippi Votes)
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In the wake of the 2020 election, over a dozen states passed laws that make it harder for residents to vote. Mississippi wasn’t among them. It’s not a battleground state. And Mississippi already has some of the most restrictive voting laws in the country. 

Those laws include rigid vote by mail rules and the disenfranchisement of people convicted of certain felony crimes, a relic of the Jim Crow era. Now, voting rights advocates like Arekia Bennett are on the lookout for copycat legislation from Kansas and Georgia that would make it harder for groups like hers to collect bulk registrations or give food and water to folks who are in long lines on Election Day.

“When you think about Mississippi, don’t think, ‘Woe is me.’ Think, ‘OMG, we all need Mississippi so that we can all get free,’” said Bennett, executive director of Mississippi Votes, a nonpartisan civic engagement organization focused on mobilizing youth and young adults, including the large and growing 18- to 35-year-old voting bloc. 

Mississippi Votes is part of a continuum, or legacy, of resistance, Bennett said. It’s 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 1965 Voting Rights Act that removed legal barriers to Blacks exercising their right to vote at the state and local levels.

But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the act. The decision, Shelby County v. Holder, no longer required jurisdictions with a history of race-based voter discrimination to seek federal permission before changing voting requirements. Mississippi quickly enacted a strict photo voter ID law. 

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

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

“Once we reckon with the demons of Jim Crow that come from the soil of Mississippi, the country can start to unravel the truth about herself,” Bennett said. “We can get a clearer definition and a clearer path forward, so we can define where we go next.”

As Democrats in Congress made an ultimately unsuccessful eleventh-hour attempt on Wednesday to save the sweeping voting reforms, the Center for Public Integrity talked with Bennett about the meaning of democracy, the impact of the Shelby decision and what would happen to state and local elections if people convicted of felonies could vote. 

*This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Arekia Bennett poses
Arekia Bennett (Courtesy of Mississippi Votes)

Q: Mississippi is the Blackest state in the country. But it has a long history of leading the nation in voter suppression efforts that disproportionately affect Black and poor people. Has America ever been a true democracy for the people of Mississippi? 

Has America ever been a true democracy generally? No. And I’ve been having this kind of intellectual debate with colleagues across the country about, what even is a democracy? And are we clear about what we’re defining as a democratic process in America? And is that representative of the people who are here now? And if this is some experiment that we are collectively engaging in, what are we agreeing to? 

Q: In Mississippi, just under 16% of voting age Black people are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction. Among the provisions in the Freedom to Vote Act is restoring federal voting rights to formerly incarcerated people upon their release. What would happen to elections in Mississippi if this provision were law?

I think we all think that’s nice, right? But also there’s some gray area that our policy teams across like organizations in Mississippi are concerned about. So does that mean federal elections or does that mean statewide elections or local elections? It’s a little vague. 

Obviously this will have a tremendous impact on our state and local elections if that particular law is expansive enough in its language to move that way. Right now, there are about 235,000 people who are disenfranchised 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 look drastically different for Mississippi, a traditionally red state, to potentially be not so red and to be equally representative. Mississippi is 38% African American and our state legislature does not reflect that. We’re also 50% women and our legislature doesn’t reflect that.

Q: The 2013 Shelby decision weakened the federal government’s oversight of discriminatory voting laws or practices. What type of impact has the Shelby decision and the voter ID law that went into effect as a result had on voter participation in Mississippi?

So [hypothetically speaking] I’m a single Black mama living deep in Yazoo and I don’t have a car. And the closest DMV is Jackson. There’s also no public transportation. The courthouse and all of these other places that people are saying I could walk to, I can’t. I got a baby, a hip baby. Where am I going?

I don’t think people see how that is disenfranchising to Black folks who live in rural communities, who don’t have the resources to get from point A to point B. 

In rural places generally, that particular court decision doesn’t take into account the everyday person who has been marginalized and otherwise ousted by the state legislature because this is not their reality and they don’t touch those people. But for me and the work that we do at [Mississippi Votes] and other organizations that we’re in community with, those are conversations we have to have every day. We have to petition the legislature or whatever body to see these people as human, as viable assets to our growing electorate. 

I don’t have the answer of 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 our Congress and these Deep South legislatures are made up, and run those people [for office] who have those lived experiences and today’s understanding of how people are living their lives. Or we just dismantle the whole system all together.

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April Simpson joined the Center for Public Integrity in October 2020 as a senior reporter covering racial...