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Local groups forming to promote voter registration, education

by Alyssa Schnugg and Rob Sigler

news@oxfordeagle.com

For almost 20 years, the League of Women Voters worked to increase voter turnout during elections, sponsored candidate forums and held other voter service events from 1964 until the chapter dissolved in 1981.

Now, 36 years later, the League of Women Voters Oxford/North Mississippi is returning to Oxford.

“We have formed a steering committee and have received permission and backing from the League of Women Voters Mississippi to form a provisional chapter,” said president Dianne Fergusson.

The provisional chapter will work for the next year to become an independent chapter.

“We are already accepting members and have almost filled our Executive Committee and Board,” Fergusson said.

The League will be holding its first membership meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the auditorium of the Oxford-Lafayette County Public Library. The guest speaker will be Mayor-elect Robyn Tannehill. The League of Women Voters Mississippi co-presidents, Carolyn Townes and Mary Ann Everette from Ridgeland will be special guests.

The League will provide an opportunity for voters of all philosophical views to come together to discuss and study the current issues that affect the local community, state, and nation.

Membership is open to women and men, as well as students aged 16 and above.

Vice-President of Voter Services Angel Morrow said the League is a non-partisan group that encourages people from both sides of the political spectrum to come together.

“In such a divisive time in our state and our country, it is important to begin building bridges and finding common ground,” Morrow said. “I believe that in the League, it is possible to begin building relationships with others who may have different views than yourself and it allows for discussion and diffusion of the tensions that we all feel at this time.”

Morrow said voter education and registration are necessary and that many people do not know the different options they have in voting or they may not have the time or the resources to register and vote.

“If we can make it easier for people to register and to vote and encourage them by reassuring voters that their voices do matter, we are making democracy work,” Morrow said.

Morrow said she learned about the League while attending the Wise Women group lunches every Friday. Fergusson approached her about joining.

“As I researched and read about it, the more I wanted to become involved,” Morrow said. “The League is non-partisan and is passionate about voter education, registration and other important issues that we are facing as a state and country. Issues that, regardless of party, we can almost all agree on.”

There are state chapters in all 50 states and multiple local Leagues within each state.  The Oxford League is the fourth and newest local League in Mississippi. Other chapters are located in the Jackson area, the Gulf Coast area and Pinebelt area.

The League of Women Voters was formed in 1920, six months before the 19th amendment was ratified, one of its primary purposes was to help prepare the 20 million women who were receiving the right to vote for the actual process of voting.

“Thus education of voters has always been a central component of the work of the League,” Fergusson said. “The League wants all citizens who are qualified to vote to exercise that right in an informed manner.  The early founders and subsequent leaders chose to make this a nonpartisan organization in order to not get entangled in partisan politics. The League has been instrumental in encouraging women to run for public office and in providing training and support for such efforts. We want to educate, advocate, and impact the political system in our local communities, our states, and our country.”

For more information on the League, call 662-333-5446 or visit their Facebook page.

Mississippi Votes

Voting and the right to vote in a democracy is something important to John Chappell. As the international studies student at Ole Miss watched the Arab Spring a few years ago, it dawned on him that the fight to live in a democracy is just as important in a place like Mississippi as it is in the Middle East.

He heard of Mississippi Votes, a non-partisan organization that works on addressing voter rights issues through voter registration, education, advocacy and research.

Chappell, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, decided to get involved in the organization and underwent training in Southaven in a pilot program, canvassing neighborhoods and registering voters. Now he’s part of the Mississippi Votes chapter in Lafayette County and wants to make a positive impact on a disturbing number.

According to research from Mississippi Votes, one in three eligible voters in Lafayette County are not registered to vote, putting the county second to last in Mississippi. They used a combination of census data and Secretary of State returns from elections to calculate voter turnout rates and voter registration rates.

In an effort to improve this figure, Mississippi Votes volunteers will be blanketing Lafayette County as they canvass the community registering voters and collecting data on voting issues and opinions.

“By the end of the summer, we should have knocked on over 24,000 doors in the county,” Chappell said. “Basically, we put down roots in communities by working with local leaders and then start canvassing. Of the people we talk to while canvassing, we register about 12 percent, which is a pretty high percentage.”

By surveying voter issues and opinions on voter policies, Chappell believes Mississippi Votes can make the state more “voter friendly and make voting processes easier.”

When the seeds of the effort were first planted, organizers realized there was very little voting data in Mississippi to address voting issues.

“A lot of what we’re doing in this blanket canvas is building a foundation of data so we can collect opinions, figure out exactly what the problems are for communities so we can tailor solutions that work best for Mississippi,” Chappell said.

He said a lot of research has already been done about voting issues and what is most efficient in registering people to vote, what voter policies are most effective and increasing turnout.

On April 13, an organizational meeting will be held at 5:30 in the upstairs area of Boure’ for those interested in volunteering with Mississippi Votes.

“We’re recruiting team leaders to help canvass Congressional District 1, which is Lafayette County,” Chappell said. The Lafayette County canvass will begin in May.

Chappell said currently the organization has volunteers from high school age to retirees with varying backgrounds and political ideologies. Their common desire is to register and educate all voters in the county and across the state.

“It’s non-partisan so you get people from across the political spectrum who recognize when people vote, democracy works better,” Chappell said.

Solutions to solving the current voter apathy issue include making it easier for citizens to register and cast ballots in elections, such as:

• Allowing individuals to register when they renew their driver’s license at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

• Allow early voting because some individuals can’t afford to take off work during the week to vote or have transportation issues since they live in such a rural area as Mississippi.

Chappell said that so far the effort has gone over really well.

“There’s a lot of excitement about having an issue-based campaign that people can agree with no matter if they’re a student or a community member or Democrat or Republican, Libertarian or Green Party,” Chappell said. “It’s been a good experience because we get to interact with a lot of people who have different opinions.”

Chappell said Mississippi Votes has some of the same focus as the League of Women Voters and the two groups have been in contact.

“We’re hoping to work together,” Chappell said. “That’s one of the nice things that there are a lot of other organizations that are asking what they can do to help with voting issues. The League of Women Voters is a natural partner because we are so closely aligned.”

For more information on Mississippi Votes, visit their website at www.msvotes.org.