WASHINGTON − Cassandra Welchlin and other community activists said they pleaded Tuesday with voters in long lines at polling sites in Jackson, Mississippi to stay and cast their ballots.
They visited churches, fire stations and schools that served as polling sites, offering snacks and water and hoping voters would hang on longer. But some left anyway. They had to go to work, pick up their children or they simply gave up.
“It was definitely disappointing, disheartening,’’ said Welchlin, executive director of the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable. “But it also made me personally want to work to improve that and to really begin to think about strategies to help make sure this doesn’t happen again.’’
For months, civil rights groups have targeted Black communities across Mississippi, urging people to vote Tuesday. The effort came after the overturning of a Jim-Crow era law in 2020 that had reduced the power of Black voters. Though activists hoped more voters would show up and election officials would be prepared, some voters in a county with mostly Black residents went to polling sites that came up short on ballots. Some voters, activists said, waited in line as long as three hours.
In a state with a long history of discrimination at the polls, activists worry the shortage and delays – whether intentional or not – could dampen efforts to get more voters of color to cast ballots.
Still, civil rights groups vow to continue ramping up efforts to get out the vote across the country ahead of the 2024 elections.
“We are in an extremely, politically volatile atmosphere,’’ said Derrick Johnson, president of the national NAACP and former president of the Mississippi NAACP State Conference. “It is important to understand that our democracy cannot work without the Black vote. It is our job to do all that is possible to ensure voters are educated, they’re engaged and they’re able to cast an effective ballot.”
‘We’re not trying to point a finger’: Officials explain what went wrong
At least nine polling stations in Hinds County experienced ballot shortages. Officials said it because of a mix up in ballot orders due to lack of training.
Hinds County election officials said confusion arose at split precincts where multiple ballot styles are used. A split precinct is a polling location where voters from two different districts go to vote.
Ratoya Gilmer McGee, Hinds County’s election commissioner for District 2, was up for reelection as was District 4 Election Commissioner Yvonne Horton.
“For example, the precinct that me and Mrs. Horton use is Raymond 1. I would have needed 300 ballots for my specific style that would help me on the ballot as commissioner. Horton would have needed over 1,000 for her ballot style,” McGee said at a press conference Thursday. “Those numbers were reversed. She got 300 and I got 1,000, so that created a shortage.”
Some precincts could have up to four or five different ballot styles, according to Hinds County Election Commissioner Shirley Varnado, who represents District 5.
This led to commissioners having to print more ballots at the election commission office, as well as the Hinds County Circuit Court’s office, which caused further delay.
The mix-up was due to the election commissioners ordering ballots from the wrong reports, McGee said.
Election Commissioners order ballots from the Mississippi Secretary of State, which uses a system called the Statewide Election Management System to send different style ballots. The system includes reports called “Precinct Ballot Styles Report,” for non-split precincts and “Precinct Split Ballot Styles Report,” for split precincts.
When ordering the ballots, commissioners used the wrong report. The report they used didn’t account for Hinds County’s newly split precincts, which had been created due to legislative redistricting in 2022.
“We used the first report, and that is the “Precinct Ballot Styles Report,” McGee said. “Bottom line, and we all take accountability for that, the report that we should have used was the ‘Precinct Split Ballot Styles Report.’”
Varnado said the commissioners did not have enough training from the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office.
Hinds County also went through a redistricting in 2022, creating a much larger number of split precincts than in previous elections that the commissioners had never dealt with before, Varnado said.
“The Secretary of State tells you go by what happened during the previous general election. This was the first time we had this many split precincts after the redistricting,” she said. “I don’t understand why we haven’t been trained on which report we should be using.”
But Varnado was quick to say that the election commissioners weren’t blaming the Mississippi Secretary of State’s office.
“We’re not trying to blame, we’re not trying to point a finger. We’re not trying to do anything but own what we did and try to explain it to the people,” Varnado said.
‘Systemic issues’ with voter access in Mississippi
Some experts and activists think the ballot shortage in Hinds County was because election officials weren’t prepared for the turnout.
Traditionally, voter turnout is low during a non-presidential election year. However, Tuesday marked the first gubernatorial election in Mississippi since the 2020 repeal of the Jim-Crow era law that used an Electoral College-type system to elect state officials.
Three different organizations filed legal challenges on election night and an appeal of those rulings are ongoing.
Others are calling for a thorough review of the process.
“There needs to be a deep assessment of how to make the process of voting much more efficient,’’ Jackson said. “It’s now time for Hinds County election officials to do a deep analysis and come back to the table prepared for next year’s election so we can have an effective and efficient election process.”
Some activists blamed a combination of “bad administration’’ and the Republican state legislature’s adoption of more restrictive voting laws.
“There are systemic issues with Mississippi voting systems that the state is doing nothing about it and actually tries to perpetuate by blocking better voter access,’’ said Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter.
Nsombi Lambright-Haynes, executive director of One Voice, an advocacy organization in Jackson, said she was disappointed by election officials’ lack of preparedness Tuesday. She called it a “hodge-podge of craziness.”
“I’m just hoping this just doesn’t discourage people,’’ said Lambright-Haynes, who went to polling sites Tuesday afternoon to urge people to stay in line. “That’s what was so disappointing to me about (Tuesday) because it didn’t have to be like that.”
Lambright-Haynes said there’s still concern about thousands of voters being purged from the registration rolls. That was a major complaint called into Tuesday’s election hotline, she said.
Civil rights groups push Black residents to voter
Election officials should have been prepared for higher turnout in Black communities across the state, activists said. For months, local and national civic engagement groups have been ramping up get-out-the vote efforts in Mississippi.
They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to boost turnout in the Delta and places like Jackson, the state’s capital.
Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable in partnership with other civic engagement groups, including Black Voters Matter, the NAACP, Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, launched get-out-the-vote campaigns in Black communities, particularly those where research showed Black women were infrequent voters.
“They’re voting,’’ said Welchlin, adding that turnout is high during presidential election years. “They’re just not voting consistently.’’
The groups hosted bootcamps for activists, conducted phone banks, canvassed neighborhoods, did robocalls, put up billboards, sent mailers and aired radio commercials.
“We did all of those things to help push folks to the polls,’’ Welchlin said.
The Black Women’s Roundtable spent $100,000 for its civic engagement effort this year, she said.
The NAACP knocked on 95,000 doors across the state.
Black Voters Matter wrapped up its most recent get-out-the-vote campaign in Mississippi on Tuesday. The Atlanta-based organization, which often takes its signature black buses to battleground states, targeted the state in part because of its rich civil rights history and its significant Black population.
Although it wasn’t a presidential election year, there were key state races, including the bid for governor, and pressing issues such as the push for Medicaid expansion, activists said.
“There’s no such thing as an off year,” said Albright. “We thought there was a really good chance to make some history.”
Black Voters Matter spent $400,000 on its get-out-the-vote efforts, said Albright. Of that, $200,000 was spent in the last month.
The Black Voters Matter Action PAC, the organization’s political action committee, spent $150,000, he said.
“We’ll continue to do the work to try to keep increasing turnout even in what’s a tough situation, and arguably especially because it’s a tough situation,’’ Albright said.
Civil rights groups got a ‘low return on their investment’
Political friction and mistrust of the voting system isn’t new in Mississippi, activists and experts said.
The state is extremely polarized, said D’Andra Orey, a political science professor at Jackson State University.
“In Mississippi, it’s not red and blue, it’s Black and white,’’ said Orey, noting that Blacks overwhelmingly vote for Democrats while whites overwhelmingly vote for Republicans. great quote
Jackson of the NAACP agreed.
“Far too many people in this state are voting their racial identity and not their interest,” he said, pointing to issues such as Medicaid expansion and hospital closings. “Elections in the state of Mississippi come down to racial identity and that’s not a sustainable approach to governing. ‘’
Orey said Democrats, who have an uphill battle in Mississippi, have been criticized for not investing enough into get-out-the-vote efforts in the state.
While the civic engagement groups spent a lot of money in Mississippi this election cycle, it didn’t mobilize enough Black voters to help the Democratic candidate win, which would have also required some crossover from white voters, said Orey.
“They got a low return on their investment,” he said.
‘Our work isn’t done’
The suspicion of voter suppression is rooted in Mississippi’s long history of discrimination at the polls, said Robert Luckett, a history professor at Jackson State University.
Britney Whaley, southeastern regional director for the Working Families Party, said that there’s no reason why one of the Blackest counties in Mississippi should have ballot shortages.
“Whether you’re talking about Jim Crow era, or you’re talking about grandfather clauses, or you’re talking about other suppressive tactics that have prohibited Black people specifically from accessing the ballot box, like there’s undeniably a history in our country,” she said.
Voting rights activists, many of them college students, joined activists in Mississippi during the 1950s and 1960s to register Black citizens to vote and fight against state sanctioned tactics, some violent, to turn away Black voters.
Some activists argue voter suppression is still underway as mostly conservative lawmakers, including in Mississippi, adopt more restrictive voting laws. For instance, an Arkansas law imposes criminal penalties on election officials who send unsolicited mail ballots, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Civil rights groups have been pushing for easier access to the polls, including in person early voting and same-day registration.
Luckett said while he doesn’t think the ballot shortage Tuesday was active voter suppression, the effort to turn away voters is still real,
“The state’s current role in suppressing the right to vote also discourages people from going to vote to begin with,’’ said Luckett.
Welchlin said the turnout Tuesday was encouraging in part because it signaled the message about the power of voting resonated.
“Our work isn’t done,’’ she said. “This is a 365-day plan…We want people to understand that they have power and their power can be used to elect people who care about these issues.’’