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Drawing out voters of color in Trump territory

It’s not easy.

GOTV activists gathered for a last round of phone-banking in New Orleans. CREDIT: Aviva Shen
GOTV activists gathered for a last round of phone-banking in New Orleans. CREDIT: Aviva Shen

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — Louisiana practically invented voter suppression. The state passed one of the first laws explicitly disenfranchising descendants of slaves, created an impossible literacy test designed to shut black voters out, and stood by as violence and terror targeted African Americans who dared to engage in politics. As recently as 1986, the state purged thousands of minority voters in the name of “ballot security.”

For decades, turnout among voters of color has remained disproportionately low, even though people of color make up nearly half of the state’s population.

Now, a group of organizers is starting to change that. Members of the Power Coalition say they’ve registered more than 15,000 new voters in the state ahead of Election Day and reached 30,000 infrequent voters.

The Power Coalition is made up of several activist groups with specific focuses: one mobilizes church-going African Americans on the West Bank, another organizes the Vietnamese immigrant community in New Orleans East, and yet another handles formerly incarcerated people re-entering society, just to name a few.

“After coming back from Hurricane Katrina, one of the things we knew we needed to do is build power.”

The groups all have different priorities — but they banded together this year because they were “fed up” with the slow pace of change in the state.

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“After coming back from Hurricane Katrina, one of the things we knew we needed to do is build power,” Minh Nguyen of VAYLA, a Vietnamese and multi-racial advocacy group, said. “We can’t change the city and build the community we want if we don’t have power.”

There are significant obstacles facing communities of color in a deep-red, highly gerrymandered state. Despite its sizable non-white population, Louisiana is one of the safest territories for Republican candidate Donald Trump, and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke is also on the state’s 2016 ballot.

“Folks of color continue to be pushed away and marginalized,” Nguyen said. “We can’t let them divide and conquer. We can’t let them pit us against each other.”

Norris Henderson, who works with formerly incarcerated Louisianans, agreed: “Most of the time I wonder, do people actually want [voters of color] to be empowered? And the true answer is no.”

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The biggest obstacle organizers face when mobilizing these voters is “apathy,” Jackie Jones, director of the Jeremiah Group, told ThinkProgress.

“‘It doesn’t matter anyway’ — this is what people tell us,” she said. “‘They’re going to do what they want to do anyway.’ And we always say: if you let them.”

The coalition attempts to bridge the gap between events that are familiar to people — their child gets expelled from school, or their house floods again — and policies — a school board member who thinks school discipline is out of control, or a Senate candidate who talks openly about climate change.

“One of the things that we try to do is use data and relationships to help people connect their vote to their everyday lives,” Ashley Shelton, the executive director of the coalition, said. “A lot of that has just been giving them data that says that.”

“We can’t let them divide and conquer. We can’t let them pit us against each other.”

It also requires a lot of legwork — literally. Jones led a massive canvassing effort that walked through 18 mostly black precincts on the west bank of the Mississippi River. One area, called Old Harvey, pledged to become “lifetime voters” and vote in every local, state, and federal election.

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“That’s 1,200 people in this district,” Jones said. “And they pledged to turn 80 percent of their voters out today.”

“If their voices are heard and they participate, you’re going to find politicians paying attention to you,” Jones tells them. “If you don’t do right by this district, we know.”

Aviva Shen, a former ThinkProgress editor, is now a freelance writer in New Orleans focused on criminal justice.