CLARKSDALE – After the results came in for Nov. 6 general election, Kaitlyn Barton, an English teacher at Clarksdale High School, decided to have a conversation the next day with her 12th-grade students about the voter turnout.

During that election, only 40 percent, or 6,237 of 15,359, of registered voters in Coahoma County cast their ballots, a high turnout by some estimates for a midterm election, but Barton’s students were not satisfied, stating how they were eligible and registered to vote, yet didn’t.

And the reason wasn’t because they didn’t want to vote, it was because they didn’t have the transportation to get to the polls, Barton recalled.

“So, then a light bulb went off in my head and I said, ‘Ah ha, we’re a school. We have school buses we can provide a solution for that need’,” she said.

Immediately after, Barton spoke with the two history teachers, Harley Wolfe and Farrington Hill, to help sponsor a partnership – The Ballot and Ride Initiative – for eligible, registered seniors to get to the polls for the runoff election Nov. 27.

The election was destined to be historic for Mississippi: Cindy Hyde-Smith becomes the state’s first woman elected to Congress. Mike Espy would have been the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate by Mississippi voters.

Once Clarence Hayes, principal of Clarksdale High, approved, Barton called the Coahoma County Courthouse to confirm the locations of where each student would be voting, so the process would be as “easy and seamless as possible,” she said.

“My teachers always told me even though I believe my one vote don’t matter, it actually does,” said Janalya Turner.

Jakaylin Stacker, agreed, by adding that young people do get out to vote.

“This was something I always wanted to do. My grandma,when I was younger, she used to wake up really early and make us go with her,” said Zarrious Moore. “So this was something that just happened.”

And on Tuesday morning, these seniors reality of voting for the first time came to pass.

Around 8:40 a.m., Barton and Wolfe led the seniors to the cafeteria, were they were met with donuts provided from a community member while Hill went to warm up the bus.

As the students were seated, Barton made sure each one had proof of identification – a voting requirement by the state of Mississippi.

Around 9:00 a.m., students stepped foot onto the yellow school bus, filled with nervous anticipation and excitement. But they had no idea that their journey to the ballot box would come with unexpected bumps along the ride.

“We don’t want to take them completely out of their school day because the educational instruction day is really important to us as teachers,” said Barton. “We were hoping that it would take an hour or hour and half to get them to their polling stations but that was not the case.”

What Hill, Wolfe, and Barton hoped to be a couple of hours turned into about three and a half. Several students experienced minimal issues, whereas two endured more, essentially delaying their voting process – while trying to combat the issues of where to vote and how to vote.

For some students, there were two precinct locations on their voter registration cards, one specifically for county-wide elections and and one for city-wide elections. 

Kaitlyn Barton created “I Voted!” stickers for her students, but she also left some at each polling location her students voted at. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

But the task became more challenging for two other students.

Tiarra Williams and Deshannon Burnett names were not listed on the voter rolls. When Barton asked for a provisional ballot or affidavit for Burnett, at the Fire Station on Lee Drive, one of the poll workers told her no and to contact the circuit clerk.

Officials in the circuit clerk’s office said because this was a county-wide election, voters must go to the precincts listed under county. Demetria Jackson, Circuit Court Clerk, advised the two students not on the rolls to go back to their precincts and demand an affidavit because they cannot be denied.

After multiple conversations with poll workers, a phone call and trip to the Coahoma County Courthouse alongside a Mississippi Today reporter, and additional trips to three of five of the polling places, every student got a chance to cast a vote in the historic election. 

Determined to vote, Burnett said filling out the affidavit was “just a part of the process.” 

Deshannon Burnett fills out an affidavit after being notified that his name was not on the voter roll. Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi

“Seeing that the world we live in everyday is kind of chaotic, so I decided to get up and try to make a change,” said Burnett. “If you think your vote doesn’t count. It really does. You just have to be the bigger person and go out and vote.”

Despite the challenges, this was a “really important lesson” for the students, said Barton, and it “should not be so complicated for these students to vote.”

“I’m also glad I was there so they had someone who knows what their rights are, who can help them learn,” she added.

“If you are for whatever reason not allowed to vote, you can figure out a solution. That was filling out a provisional ballot or an affidavit that they are who they say they are and that was an experience for them … Don’t let anyone suppress your votes.”

Hayes, the school principal, wants to continue “Ballot and Ride” for years to come and wants to see it expand to other schools across Coahoma County and across the nation, he said.

“I thought it was a good idea and I was in full support of it,” said Hayes.

Follow Mississippi Today’s election coverage here.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.