Edwin Buggage Editor-in-Chief
On October 12th voters will once again go to the polls to vote.
In this election, like many others, we at Data News Weekly encourage our citizens to get out and vote. In the spirit of promoting civic participation, we spoke to two people who are on the frontlines of getting more of the people to cast ballots.
Norris Henderson is Executive Director of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), an ex-offender advocacy group that focuses on citizens’ rights that includes voting.
Flozell Daniels, Jr., is CEO and President of Foundation for Louisiana. In leading this group, they work to tackle the issues that most deeply impact our communities, advocating alongside Louisianans to chart their own futures. He also sits on many civic boards and is an expert at Criminal Justice Reform and Voting Rights.
Criminal Justice Reform in Motion: ACT 636 Gives the Right to Vote to Nearly 70,000 New Voters
In May 2018, HB 265, sponsored by a group of Democratic Legislatures mostly from New Orleans passed the Louisiana Legislature, which means that thousands of formerly incarcerated people got their voting rights back as of March 1, 2019. This bill was signed into law (ACT 636) by Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards. With this new law, it is estimated nearly 70,000 citizens of this state who are presently on probation or parole are now eligible to vote.
According to Henderson, who is heading up an awareness campaign of getting people registered to vote says, “We have seen our state in terms of Criminal Justice Reform begin to move in the right direction. Over the years evidence has shown we were going down the wrong road. Act 636 becoming law is an opportunity for citizens of this state to exercise their right to vote. We at VOTE would like to thank all those who are working with us on this and many of the other issues we are addressing in the fight for fairness and justice for the people of our state.”
He speaks of having a governor in place in John Bel Edwards, who on the campaign trail made Criminal Justice Reform one of his signature issues as key. Henderson was on hand when the governor signed Act 636 into law.
“We were fortunate enough to have a governor coming in who was campaigning on reforming this system. This was about a coalition of people coming together to get this done. But the work is not over, we still have to get people registered to vote and then get them to the polls.”
Re-Writing History and Changing the Narrative through Voting
It is well documented that much of Louisiana’s problems with Blacks and voting is rooted in a Legacy of Racial Repression according to Flozell Daniels, Jr., “The start of much of this we can look at Reconstruction after the Civil War, where Blacks began making gains politically even having a Black Lt. Governor and Governor because we had the right to vote. Then there was a White backlash and a reign of terror was killing, lynching, and obstacles in place that kept Blacks from voting. This is my view, in some ways has created a generational passing down of apathy and fear around voting.”
Continuing speaking looking through the lens of history to the present day he says many strides have been made but some of the problems are still the same and that summoning of the spirit of the freedom fighters of the past should be an inspiration that leads us to the future.
“We hear people speaking of our great leaders that included A.P. Tureaud, Dutch Morial, O.C. Haley, Israel Augustine, and many others. What we don’t talk about is that they were us back in the day, they were the professionals, they were educated, and they decided that they would put their privilege on the line and move to create rights for all people to live a free life. Today, it seems 50 years later we are a City mostly run politically by African American and we are battling a lot of these same images. Many are doing great work, but more needs to be done in the area of Civil Rights and equality for the disposed of the City.”
De-Mystifying Myths around Voting
Many myths are at the root of why some in the African American community does not vote. One is that many formerly incarcerated persons believe they are barred from voting. This is rooted in an old law that is no longer on the books according to Henderson.
“Go to jail, lose your rights to vote forever prior to 1974 that was the case, but the state changed the constitution, so many of our citizens are operating on this false urban legend.”
Henderson, who says of his outreach efforts are rooted in helping empower people in his community. But he says much of this work should be done by the Secretary of State and other entities.
“Our organization should not have to take on the heavy lifting that the Secretary of State should do, in creating awareness of new law and helping people get registered to vote. But if they won’t do it, we will because it is a necessary first step to empowering our people.”
Setting the Agenda…Voting Matters
Daniels believes there must be a recommitment on the part of African Americans to get to the polls.
“People have to vote; we have to get back to a standard of our ancestors who was committed to change and making it next for the next generation. If we do not do this then we are missing an opportunity to better our community.”
Harkening back to the days when there were many more obstacles, but people voted he says, “There were laws in place and outright intimidation to make it harder for us to vote, but those who came before us had the courage and the will to vote no matter what even if it meant having to walk five miles to vote. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them and it is our responsibility and duty to carry on in this tradition honoring those who came before us.”
New Orleans has seen a drop-in voting among all groups, but Blacks cannot afford not to get to the polls and cast their ballots. There is too much at stake not just now under the regime of Donald Trump, but at the local and state level it is arguably more important to vote in local elections.
There was a time when Blacks in New Orleans voted at 85 to 95 percent when voting rights were granted to African Americans. Today that number is much lower. In our current elections, we are seeing a range anywhere between 10 to 35 percent of people voting; in this political climate, this is dangerous for the African American community. It is time to re-engage and get involved by not just voting, but demanding accountability from those that are in elected office.
Civic Engagement is more than Voting: Election Season is 24-7…365
Voter Registration is only the first step in civic engagement. It is voter education that is most important; a point made by both Henderson and Daniels.
“When people are educated about the issues they respond differently,” says Henderson. “We need year-round campaigns regarding issues not just elections. For example, when we went in the community and educated them on the issue of the non-unanimous jury verdicts, many did not know of this law and that we were one of two states in the nation with such laws. When they were educated about it and its impacts, we were able to do something about it and people came out to vote to change the law.”
Daniels, who is involved in the work of uplifting his community speaks admiringly of Henderson and the work he does. “He is my hero and for all the work he and so many others at the grassroots level do in moving our community forward I admire their courage and commitment.”
This effort that both men are on is part of a tradition of those who have dedicated their lives to the struggle for justice and equality.
Speaking with optimism in his voice Daniels says, “Voting can take us in a brighter direction, with it we have the power to put leaders in place that reflect our agenda and aspirations as a community.”
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