Jim Crow in the Driver’s Seat

Rural Mississippians without cars face voting hurdles

Ingrid Cruz July 19, 2023

The United States is known for its dependence on cars, but this reliance is much more palpable in states like Mississippi. Public transit is scarce in the state, especially in the rural areas where most people reside: More than half live in a Census location of fewer than 2,500 people, and 90% live somewhere with fewer than 50,000.

Despite this reliance on cars, however, Mississippi’s car ownership is low. This is partly due to its nearly 20% poverty rate, one of the two highest in the country. The state has 27 registered vehicles per 100 residents, well below the national average of 33. To put it another way, its 1.8 cars per household is tied with New Jersey for second lowest of any state.” This lack of cars, combined with road-friendly planning, makes it harder to get around for those without cars, disproportionately the poor. It’s an especially big problem around election day.

Polling locations can change with little notice, which can be a problem for carless voters who end up in the wrong place on election day. In 2022, Mississippi Free Press made a list of all polling locations in Mississippi. Their research found that some location information was incomplete, corrected, or changed. On top of that, nearby roads often have high speed limits and little to no pedestrian space, making walking treacherous. Inclement weather can also make it harder to get to one’s polling location by foot, especially for the elderly and people with disabilities, groups who are also less likely to have cars.

In 2020, Mississippi surprised experts with its record voter turnout. But this changed in 2022, when Mississippi had the lowest voter turnout in the country for midterm elections, with just 31.5% of eligible votes cast. According to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, up to 30% of registered young voters didn’t vote because they weren’t able to get rides to polls on election day.

While some community groups are stepping up to provide rides, Mississippi law creates several obstacles for carless voters. Mail-in ballots are only available to people who are permanently or temporarily disabled, or who meet certain conditions that they may not know they qualify for, such as caring for a parent or immediate family member who is hospitalized.

More than one trip

The first hurdle for carless voters is that voting requires more than just one trip to the polls every two years.

Mississippi is one of five states that holds its state congressional elections during odd years  instead of holding them simultaneously with even-year federal elections. Mississippi’s carless voters have to find workarounds for elections more often than residents in other states.

And that’s just the beginning. “Mississippi has been behind the tide of modernization of voting practices compared to the rest of the country,” says Sabrina Khan, Senior Supervising Attorney in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC’s) voting rights practice. “It’s now one of the states that doesn’t offer online voter registration.”: This means carless voters must find a way to register in person, another trip.

Absentee voting is also only available to certain groups. While these groups include the elderly and people with disabilities, a new state law, Senate Bill 2358, would essentially criminalize assisting these vulnerable voters. The bill’s language limits who can submit another person’s ballot, allowing only U.S. Postal Service workers, elections officials, or caregivers, relatives, and household members, posing a legal risk for activists who don’t fall into these categories.

“This is disturbing because people with disabilities rely on assistants to take their absentee ballot and submit it for them,” Khan says. For carless voters, this new law could make it harder to vote absentee because third parties will be legally barred from assisting them.

In addition, Khan says, “The state does not offer a wider early voting period with the exception of limited circumstances.” This gives voters less flexibility, as they must find a ride specifically on Election Day.

Voting without a license

The state’s Voter ID law can also be an added challenge for people who wish to exercise their right to vote. “In Mississippi you specifically need a photo identification,” says Kahn. “It’s not as easy for people to get the most common form of voter ID, such as driver’s license, for people who are lower income or who might not have access to a car.”

Even if some people have access to a car, Mississippi has also struggled to fill positions in the Department of Public Safety (DPS) in the past, which means potential new drivers must wait in long lines to get their licenses. Unlicensed voters can use Mississippi’s state-issued photo identification cards, but an understaffed DPS poses challenges to obtaining one, as does the fact that a car is needed to get to most DPS locations.

People who are eligible and registered to vote may face issues once they arrive at their polling location due to confusion about Voter ID requirements. “A lot of people may show up without a photo ID,” Khan says. “When that happens they’re only able to cast a provisional ballot, meaning that they have to take extra steps to show their photo ID within [5 business] days after Election Day to get their vote actually counted.” Not having a car means potential voters have to find a way to show up to their local election commissioner’s office and show their documentation for their vote to count.

The legal system also makes it harder for many to get their driver’s licenses. In Mississippi, failing to appear in court for a traffic-related offense can result in a suspended  license. Fees for reinstatement of a driver’s license can range from $25 to $175 depending on the reason for suspension. Organizations such as the SPLC have managed to work with the state of Mississippi to reinstate driver’s licenses for drivers who are unable to pay for these fines..

For the recently incarcerated, getting and keeping a driver’s license can be tricky. The state of Mississippi provides provisional licenses for people who’ve been released from prison, but these are valid for only six months. In these six months, anyone who has come into contact with the state’s carceral system must clear any suspensions, revocations, or other items in their driving record before they can apply for a regular driver’s license.

Getting a ride

Even with all of the challenges, there’s some headway in bridging the gap between voters and transportation. The RECH Foundation collects data on people who may need rides to the polls on election days, and she helps people register to vote whenever possible. “I drive with voter registrations in my car,” she says. RECH Foundation employees and volunteers personally drive formerly incarcerated eligible voters to the polls if they don’t have alternate transportation, connect them with other organizations who can drive them, and help eligible voters with relatives who are currently incarcerated.

 Mississippi is also rich in traditions such as Souls to the Polls, an initiative through which many Black churches assist members who want to cast their ballots. States such as Georgia have attempted to curb the actions of Souls to the Polls, but providing rides to potential voters is still legal in Mississippi.  Organizations such as Mississippi M.O.V.E. and OneVoice also participate in a secular version of this, Roll 2 the Polls. These organizations provide rides to as many people as they can during election season for free.

Where people in larger metro areas may have access to public transportation, this isn’t an option for the majority of rural Mississippians. Only 0.2% of Mississippi workers commute via public transit, one-tenth of the national average. Public transport is still an issue in most of Mississippi, but the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) works with local communities to bring programs to fruition that can help people without a car.

Steve Gaines, director of Northeast Mississippi Community Services, oversees Tupelo Transit in Tupelo, Mississippi, population 38,000. In an experimental approach to public transportation, residents within the Tupelo city limits can call and ask the service to pick up them at home and drop them off to their desired location.  The project is barred from taking people to polls during election season because of it funding obligations to the Federal Transit Authority, MDOT, and Mississippi Department of Human Services. Generally, state resources are never allowed to be used for anything resembling campaigning, so Tupelo Transit must remain completely nonpartisan, but riders can use Tupelo Transit to register to vote or obtain a photo ID.

Several college and university shuttle systems, such as Oxford University Transit in Oxford, Mississippi (population 26,000), provide rides to elections sites for free on Election Days. Over the long term, efforts to increase voter turnout will require legislative change. For instance, Sabrina Khan says, Mississippi could pass laws that offer same-day voter registration and no-excuse absentee voting, and end restrictive legislation, such as SB 2358. In the meantime, however, it’s clear that there are many dedicated people working to ensure vulnerable voters have rides to the polls.

Ingrid Cruz

Ingrid Cruz is a freelance writer, journalist and comedian. She covers Mississippi and the Global South and believes everyone should visit a Southern gas station at least once in their life. You can read her work at <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/author/ingrid-cruz">Business Insider</a>, <a href="https://latinamedia.co/author/ingrid/">Latina Media Co.</a>, <a href="https://remezcla.com/author/ingridcruz/">Remezcla</a> and <a href="https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/author/ingrid-cruz">Refinery29</a>.

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