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Scalawag created the As the South Votes project in part as a resource for rural Southern voters whose stories often go uncovered—or are flat out misrepresented by national media outlets. Stereotypes of rural voters as those who vote against their own interests fail to see the structural ways in which rural communities are discounted and intentionally discouraged from voting. At a recent virtual town hall, Anoa Changa sat down with three representatives from advocacy groups across the South where they discussed how to ethically empower rural voters this election.
Watch the recap of the full As The South Votes Town Hall event:
There are many barriers to accessing the ballot for voters generally across the South, but rural voters are often disproportionately impacted. What are some of the challenges these folks are facing, and how can we work to help more rural voters get engaged this cycle?
If we had enough voting power in our metro areas, we would already be living in the kind of state we want to live in.
Accessibility of information applies to material barriers, too. Advocacy groups across the South are investing more in signage like billboards and other "offline" media to get actionable information into the hands of people in communities without technological infrastructure.
"When I'm thinking about voter IDs, and the limitations of folks who live in rural communities outside of Jackson, I'm thinking about […] places where you don't have a mailbox, you have a PO box, and the PO box is in town, and you have to drive to town to get there," Bennett said. "People don't have public transportation, people don't have cars. So we're talking about all of these different economic restrictions and mobility issues around like how people can even access the thing in the first place."
Adding to the accessibility headache, mainstream media also often mischaracterizes or fails to accurately represent the real concerns of people in rural areas, feeding into the kind of general distrust that Benavidez cautioned about.
This predisposition and valid hesitance to outsiders makes deep partnerships and relationship-building even more crucial for organizers trying to win trust in areas where others have historically not made appropriate efforts.
"When I go to do this work in those rural communities, I of course go with deference and respect—but also an understanding that we have established groups and organizations that do the work," Khondoker said.
It's those strategic partnerships—and the followthrough on them—that can make or break effective mobilization.
"I don't make promises I can't keep. If I tell them I want to show up, I show up," Shelton said. "You know, if we say we're going to meet on a Wednesday at five o'clock and it's raining, we will still be there Wednesday, even if it's raining. I think that consistency and showing up in those rural communities really makes a huge difference."
That mobilization is key in harnessing the power of would-be voters to swing entire states.
"One of the things that I always remind folks in South Louisiana is that if it would be enough for us to have the power in South Louisiana, we'd already be living in the state we want to live in, because it'd be fixed," Shelton said. "But the reality is that you've got to have the whole state engaged. And those voters and those voices in those rural parishes are really critical to how we build and get to a stronger state, and how we build voice and power."
Watch Next: Many voters—and organizers—are critical of the Biden/Harris ticket, but don't have a good alternative to offer. Is that voter suppression? How do we combat this specific kind of disillusionment?
Arekia Bennett has organized and empowered youth across Mississippi over the last 10 years. She serves as the Executive Director of Mississippi Votes, a statewide, millennial led, civic engagement non-profit organization that has engaged over 500,000 young people across the state. Since 2018, Mississippi Votes has registered around 15,000 new voters, many of them between the ages of 18 and 39, and many of whom were formerly incarcerated and or in prison. Mississippi Votes also advocates for policies to expand voting access in Mississippi.
Aklima Khondoker is All Voting is Local's Georgia State Director. Prior to joining the campaign, Khondoker worked as a staff attorney and the senior manager for the Voting Access Project at the ACLU of Georgia, where she focused on first and fourth amendment issues, women's reproductive freedoms, and voting rights. Her voting rights work in Georgia includes both litigation and advocacy. She's been involved in the development and execution of voting rights strategy that has included crafting policy and regulatory proposals, partnership development, monitoring local election boards, and successfully advocating for more voting sites.
Ashley Shelton is the Executive Director of the Power Coalition, a statewide 501c3 table in Louisiana. The Power Coalition uses a broad-based strategy that combines community organizing, issue advocacy, and civic action all while increasing the capacity of community organizations throughout the state to sustain and hold the work. Their integrated voter engagement approach has changed policy at the municipal and state level, and moved infrequent voters of color to vote at higher levels.