Just three years ago, Mississippi had on its books an election law from the 1890 constitutional convention designed to uphold “white supremacy” in the state. The law created a system for electing statewide officials that was similar to the Electoral College — and that drastically reduced the political power of black voters.
Voters Overturn Jim Crow-era Law in 2020 This summer, a federal court struck down another law, also from 1890, that permanently disenfranchised people convicted of a range of felonies.
Now in Mississippi’s first gubernatorial election since those laws fell, the race is incredibly competitive in this deep-red state, and black voters are poised to play a key role.
Black leaders and civil rights groups in Mississippi see the Nov. 7 election as a chance for a more level playing field and an opportunity for black voters to exert their influence: About 40 percent of voters are black, a higher share than in any other state.
“This election is going to be historic,” said Charles V. Taylor Jr., executive director of the Mississippi State NAACP Conference. race. And also, we’re at a point in our country where people are fed up and frustrated with what’s going on right now.”
Democrats are trying to harness that energy behind Brandon Presley, the party’s gubernatorial nominee. Mr. Presley, who is white, is seeking to use his brand of moderate politics and promises to expand Medicaid to victory over Gov. Tate Reeves, the unpopular Republican incumbent followed by the welfare scandal.
Black Mississippians are overwhelmingly Democratic: 94 percent voted for Joseph R. Biden Jr. 2020, according to exit polls. Any path to a Democratic victory relies on increasing black turnout and winning over some crossover white voters.
Mr. Presley, a member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission and a second cousin of Elvis Presley, made reaching out to black voters central to his campaign, seeking to win them over to expand Medicaid, address the shortage of rural hospitals and secure funding for historically black colleges.
On a recent October weekend, Mr. Presley was moving tents and barbecue smokers at a tailgate at Alcorn State University, one of six historically black colleges in the state. As he ran from tent to tent, wearing a purple and gold polo in support of the home team, Mr. Presley introduced himself to oblivious voters and took selfies with his supporters, many of whom tagged him amid the blare of music and the smell of smoking ribs.
“Let’s go Brandon!” came a smiling call from a purple-and-gold tent overflowing with chairs.
LaTronda Gayten, a 48-year-old Alcorn State alumna, ran over to throw Mr. Presley off. The candidate eagerly responded, high-fiving and hugging supporters, declaring, “Come November 7th, we’re going to beat Tate Reeves!”
Ms. Gayten and her friends made sure to take pictures before Mr. Presley fled to the next tent. “He’s looking out for the people of Mississippi,” she said. “I’m from a rural area and Wilkinson County and I don’t want our local hospitals to close.”
Many of the state’s rural areas, however, are overwhelmingly white, and any Democrat seeking statewide office must cut into Republican margins there. Mr. Presley routinely notes in his speech that he is “building a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, independents, people who may never agree on policy.”
A limited race poll shows Mr. Prisli is within striking distance, but constantly runs behind Mr. Reeves. Mr. Presley trailed the governor in the last fundraising period by $7.9 million to $5.1 million, but Mr. Reeves enters the final stretch with $2.4 million more in cash.
Elliott Husbands, the governor’s campaign manager, said in a statement that Mr. Reeves “met with voters in every single community across the state, including many black voters, to win their support.” Reeves’ campaign is divided post on social networks with pictures of Mr. Reeves meeting with black leaders, but declined to offer further details.
While Mr. While Presley is trying to bridge Mississippi’s stark racial divide, he hasn’t shied away from that history.
“Black Mississippians and white Mississippians are deliberately, strategically and intentionally divided along racial lines,” said Mr. “Deliberately divided. For two things: money and power, money and power, money and power.”
He added that Mr. Reeves and his allies “hope black voters won’t come out to the polls in November. That’s what they’re counting on.”
Mr. Taylor and the local NAACP began a new program to reach black voters.
Every day, shareholders fan out across a predominantly black neighborhood of low-propensity voters, seeking extensive conversations about the issues that matter to them and why they would be more inclined to vote.
Calling themselves the Front Porch Focus Group, the researchers — led by Working America, a labor organization, in cooperation with the national and local NAACP — knocked on nearly 5,000 doors. Voters’ top priorities are clear: economic opportunity, affordable housing and health care.
However, the resulting study by researchers found that black voters “did not identify voting as a mechanism to address those issues.”
“Among the people we spoke to, 60 percent shared a version of ‘Voting doesn’t make a difference,'” the study said. “One voter told us they would ‘rather work that hour and make $18 more than spend an hour unhappily voting.’ Jahcari, a 34-year-old man from Jackson, said: ‘In the state of Mississippi, I feel like Black people are never going to be on top, so there’s not really that much we can do when it comes to voting. ‘”
Mr Taylor hopes to change such attitudes, and a new voting landscape is a start. According to the old electoral law, candidates for statewide office had to win both the popular vote and a majority of State House districts, with maps often drawn to crowd out blacks and limit their voting power. A state law barring those convicted of certain felonies from voting also disproportionately affected black voters, depriving one in six black adultsaccording to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Black Mississippians, said Mr. Taylor, are some of the least “invested” voters; the state is so deeply red and so tense that national Democrats rarely spend money there.
That’s why the local NAACP increased its budget for this election cycle to nearly $1 million, compared to roughly $500,000 in 2019. Mr. Taylor also oversees a broad program of traditional door-knocking, direct mail, targeted digital advertising and Black Radio commercials. He specifically focuses on races related to the criminal justice system, such as those for district attorney.
Mr. Presley’s staying power, as well as recent victories in Georgia Senate races and friendly Supreme Court decisions, could pave the way for black voters to build a stronger voice in the South.
“I am very grateful to all the people who have been doing an incredible job in Georgia,” said Mr. Taylor in an interview at his local NAACP office. “If you want to win in the South, it takes time.” Next door, original civil rights-era windows were still riddled with bullet holes. “We have to look at winning over decades, not just one election.”
Mr Presley’s campaign believes one election could be now. She has made what it calls a multimillion-dollar investment in reaching out to black voters, including efforts to deputize volunteers and supporters to reach out to her personal contacts.
Still, he has to win over the skeptics.
As Mr. Presley wound his way through the Alcorn tailgate, the DJ offered him his microphone for a quick word.
“We have to beat Tate Reeves, and I need you with us, and I need you to go vote,” thundered Mr. Presley. “God bless you.”
But the DJ, who refused to give his name, did not let Mr Presley off easily.
“We need you to be here next year when you win, and to keep coming, and guess what, you’re going to support our HBCUs,” DJ said. “To hear you say: You will support all HBCUs”
He handed the microphone back to Mr. Presley, who borrowed a line from his speech.
“All the HBCUs, and we’re going to return the $250 million to Alcorn State University that was taken from them,” Mr. Presley said, referring to the letter that the Biden administration sent to Mr. Reeves last month saying Mississippi has underfunded the institution by that amount for more than 30 years.
The DJ clapped for him before playing the next song and Mr. Presley went to the next tent.