/Inside a Mississippi Delta voter’s journey to ensure safe voting conditions

Inside a Mississippi Delta voter’s journey to ensure safe voting conditions

MOUND BAYOU — Jackie Lucas never misses a vote. It has never been so easy for her to vote in Mississippi. That was until the pandemic. Lucas, a senior Black citizen living with diabetes, felt unsafe voting in the small enclosed area at Mound Bayou city hall. It is not uncommon for people to sit shoulder to shoulder while waiting to cast their vote in her town, which is well-known for its civic engagement. Precinct voter population figures based on 2010 census show that Mound Bayou’s precinct has 1,965 residents, which is approximately 70% more than the state’s average. Lucas stated that “We don’t have the space to do any type of distancing.” She was also unsure if the president would not try to undermine her absentee voting. She decided to work with her elected representatives to move the voting location from the small town hall to the large high school gym, which is less than half a block away. Although she prevailed, it was not without having to jump through many hoops and hearing first from every elected official that they couldn’t do anything. Lucas reached out 64 days prior to the election to Shelia Perry, her county’s election commissioner, in order to change Mound Bayou’s voting location. She said that she had not heard back from him. Lucas was then informed by the Mound Bayou mayor, that Perry had reached out to her and that nothing could be done. Perry confirmed to Mississippi Today that she had reached out the Mississippi Secretary-of-State’s office for assistance. However, she said that she was told that changing voting locations would require that she wait 90 days before the election. Lucas reached out to her mayor, election commissioner and board attorney for election commissioners, as well as her state representative. Although some of them tried to help Lucas find safer and more effective voting options, they didn’t know that there wasn’t a law that required polling places to be altered by a certain time before an election. Even Gov. Tate Reeves was unable to provide clarity when asked about the process for changing a voting location. Reeves admitted that he is not an expert in election law. “If it takes more than 90 days and there is a significant issue in a county, then we have had the coronavirus in this county for some time now. “We knew that November elections were approaching.” Lucas was able to hear this while trying to change her voting location. She was not only out of luck but also that she should have considered it sooner. “I asked Mrs. Lucas about why she hadn’t looked at it before 90 days. She was very honest and said she didn’t think of it until recently,” stated state Rep. Abe Hudson (D-Shelby). “And I completely understand, but she brought it up,” Hudson said. Hudson tried to help find solutions to prevent virus spread on Election Day. For example, Hudson secured tents and fans to allow the election to be moved outside. To help with the costs, he also sent grants opportunities to Delta-based circuit clerks. Hudson stated, “I will be truthful and give (Lucas), all the credit in this world for bringing that up.” Teresa Jones, a voting rights advocate and law student, said that elected officials have the responsibility to ensure safe voting for their constituents. The constituent should not be responsible for making sure she can vote. Jones stated that the polling place for her is not safe. This was something that should have been planned at both the state and county levels. Jones said that Jones believes that this is an important issue for her, and that she will go to great lengths to ensure that she can do it safely and that it is possible. It’s possible that other people feel the same way and don’t know how to call their election commissioner. They don’t know how to call their state representative because most voters don’t know who they are. Lucas was born and raised in Mound bayou. She grew up watching her mother vote and serving as an alderman for over 20 years. She recalls the KKK’s threats to the first Black Bolivar County Supervisor elected into office and how he fled to safety in Mound Bayou. There were also the stories her grandfather, a Black Mississippian, went through in order to vote during Jim Crow. Lucas stated that her grandfather used to tell stories about how, when Bolivar County’s white residents didn’t want Black people to vote they would make long lines and wait for them. They (the white people), would give them water and food that was contaminated with a laxative, and they’d have to all leave the polls. It’s not dead, but voter suppression continues to be a trickery. It’s just different methods to try to keep Black voters from voting.” She could have voted early or absentee because she was older or at times that were less crowded. She was not the only one affected by this issue. She has lost count of the people who have died due to the coronavirus, which is disproportionately affecting Black people. Bolivar County is where she lives. COVID-19 infected 1,993 people, 61% of whom were Black. She said that forcing people to vote in a place where virus transmission is possible according to the CDC felt like another example of how Black voters must put their lives at risk to vote, and that white leaders don’t care. She said that she knew the president would not look at the situation and decide, “Oh yes, they need a larger space (to vote).” But, the people of Mound Bayou should have the right to vote, and that they should be safe voting. She said that she never considered not voting. Lucas stated, “You cannot protest and say, ‘I’m not going to vote. I’m not going there for my life.’ That’s not what’s desired.” It was ultimately determined that Perry and the Mississippi secretary-of-state’s office miscommunication, misunderstanding, or misinformation occurred. Kendra James, assistant secretary to state for communications, stated that she was not certain who the Bolivar County election commissioner spoke to, but there is no deadline to modify a polling location. “We recommend that all changes to polling places be made no later than 60 calendar days before the election. This allows enough time for affected voters to be notified, but there isn’t a hard deadline.” James said in an email to Mississippi Today that Kendra James, assistant secretary of state for communications and publications, stated that she had requested counties to contact their polling sites to ensure they are still accessible for Election Day. James stated that if a county is unable to use the polling location or can find a better location for current conditions (e.g., a facility that allows for more social distancing, or allows for one door for entry or exit), the county should be encouraged to move the location. “We have offered funding through our (Coronavirus Assistance, Relief and Economic Security CARES Grant) to reimburse counties for renting or purchasing reasonably priced tents for open air voting and one table per precinct for outside voting.” However, there has been confusion at all levels of government and no state leadership has voted to make it easier to vote during a pandemic. Mississippi already had some of most restrictive early voting laws in America, but did less to make it easier for people to vote in person or via mail. This was to avoid crowding in precincts on Election Day, and avoid any possible exposure to coronavirus. Most states allowed early voting without any excuse even before the pandemic. Only those who are unable to travel on Election Day in Mississippi are permitted to vote early. The 2020 session included a provision that allows those in quarantine by a doctor because of the coronavirus or those caring for those affected to vote early. The state Supreme Court has narrowly interpreted that provision. Lucas received word from the county that it would help her change her polling location just 30 days prior to the Nov. 3, election. It turned out that only county supervisors have the power to change the location of a voter’s polling place, provided it is necessary to do so in an emergency. Supervisor Olanda Moron (Mound Bayou) asked the Bolivar County Board of Supervisors to change the location. The election commission board is represented by the same attorney as the board of supervisors. Morton stated, “I would like to go ahead and get with (the board of elections in Bolivar County), and see what we can do.” Because Lucas now knows that the Mound Bayou polling location will be changed so that voting can be done safely, she has turned her attention towards making sure everyone gets out to vote. She said, “I am just thrilled.” “We won’t have to endure it,” Bobby Harrison and Alex Rozier contributed this report.