CLARKSDALE — Students in Brett Wilson’s high school history class said until recently, no one taught them about voting or voter registration. That is, until Wilson helped launch the Clarksdale High School Future Leaders Club, a student social club to help them learn about civic engagement.
With an election looming this school year, Wilson and his colleague Ricky Fields started the club so students and the community they live in can become better informed about the importance of voting and the process.
“Did I really know anything about voting and voter education in my high school years? If not, why? Why did we not have those conversations? Why was that not included in the curriculum or even just small conversations in class?” Wilson said over a Zoom call. “This is nonpartisan … because voting affects all the sides. We want everyone to have access to that.”
The teachers’ efforts empowered Clarksdale students to host a community-wide voter registration drive on Sept. 26.
“The hope is to bring in the change (and) make sure that everyone knows how important it is, and how important it plays into our future,” said Marchellos Scott, a 17-year-old Clarksdale senior.
“When it comes to voting, people don’t know, or my peers don’t know how big of an impact and how much of a difference that it really makes,” Scott continued. “But if we don’t fully educate ourselves on those (candidates), how can they accommodate our needs?”
READ MORE: Mississippi Today Voter Guide
With the Oct. 5 voter registration deadline days away, communities across the state are finding ways to engage prospective and current voters.
In Hinds County, circuit clerk Zack Wallace hosted a socially distanced safer absentee initiative during the week of Sept. 21. This consisted of food vendors, music, and tables with information about the election process and absentee voting.
“A lot of people are confused about the pandemic, mail-in ballots, and absentee voting. This (event) is to calm people’s concerns during this pandemic,” Wallace said in a phone call with Mississippi Today on Sept. 16.
Mississippi is one of few states which does not allow people to vote early by mail or in person. The exception is only for people 65 and older, those away from home on Election Day, and those who have a disability.
Recently, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that if a person has a pre-existing health condition that places them at greater risk from COVID-19, it does not mean the person can vote early. This leaves local circuit clerks to make decisions on who can or can’t vote early.
“With the pandemic, we don’t know what it’s gonna look like in the next 30 to 40 days… folks having to stand in line for long times, if a major outbreak occurs, that’s a fear,” said Jarvis Dortch, executive director of the Mississippi affiliate of the ACLU. “Fear there are precincts that may be changed.”
Conor Dowling, associate professor of American politics at the University of Mississippi, said the more confusion there is, the increased chances of low voter turnout.
“The quicker lingering court cases are settled, the better. That way, accurate and consistent information can be disseminated to voters from then on until Election Day,” he said in an email response.
The coronavirus pandemic makes it more difficult to reach voters and build on a younger electorate, but this hasn’t deterred community members from taking action, said N’Spire Walker, a school teacher and community activist.
“That’s why we go to their living areas. We can walk up and catch them when they’re coming out of the house,” Walker said. “The main ones who need to vote are the ones you got to go to or meet them where they’re going.”
Walker, a middle school science teacher and founder of Dream Team of the South, a Meridian-based nonprofit, initially focused her efforts on registering voters. She soon realized some voters were inactive. Others were unsure of how to check their status.
“My main thing now is making sure the people who think they’re registered make sure they’re active and making sure ones who are registered take action,” she said.
Voter registration drives are usually successful, said Thessalia Merivaki, assistant professor in American politics at Mississippi State University. Incorrect information on registration forms and voters unaware of their rights and options can hinder the process, she said. This can be resolved through outreach and education.
This is why voter education is essential to the process. If it is not done, especially for the high school and college electorate, it exacerbates inequities in access to information, Merivaki added. For example, if a student comes from a household that is less likely to vote, it is likely the student won’t cast a ballot as opposed to a student in a civically active household, she said.
“This is another population that we know very little about, and it’s very hard to reach,” Merivaki said. “If we track this path towards college, that’s how we can explain why there’s so many students who are very unfamiliar with the process. The first time voters start college and they’re overwhelmed.”
In spite of challenges posed during this election cycle, exercising the right to vote keeps Clarksdale High School students and other communities motivated.
“By educating our students and bringing them along, they could also bring along their parents, their peers, and other family members that may not have that understanding (of voting),” Fields said. “There are adults my age that don’t understand the voting process.”
The deadline to register to vote is Oct. 5. Election Day is Nov. 3. To learn more about the candidates and voting process, visit Mississippi Today’s Voter Guide.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the Mississippi Supreme Court, not the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled on the state’s absentee voting law.