As tens of millions of Americans descend on polling stations all over the country Tuesday, a determined group of volunteers will be helping thousands of people exercise their right to vote by driving them directly to the ballot boxes in rural areas.
Rolling to the Polls, a Montgomery, Ala.,-based group, has spent the last four years preparing for the Nov. 3, 2020 election, expected to be one of the most contentious and dramatic in recent decades. Through its education program, run by the alumni chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, organizers have until now focused on restoring voting rights and registering people to vote.
But its biggest push will come on Tuesday.
“We came to the realization in the fall 2017 that we need to get people registered throughout the year, all day, all of the time,” said Cassandra E. Brown, president of the sorority’s Montgomery chapter. “But if we don’t get them to the actual polling location, then that is a fruitless effort. So back in the fall of 2017 we began offering transportation to the polls.”
The service, which this year will rely on a small army of around 50 drivers will take calls from people living in Montgomery and other surrounding counties who have no way to make it to the ballot box. Those people are typically poor, but the group will answer calls from anyone who wants to vote and has no way to make it to the polling station.
Brown believes that the service helps counter one of the less obvious forms of voter suppression: preventing people from getting to the polls. Even after the formal end of Jim Crow, other forms of voter suppression have persisted in the Southeast for decades, including accusations of targeted poll closures, excessive demand for identification and the closure of driver license offices.
“Voter suppression comes in many forms,” said Brown. “Keeping people in poverty and away from polls is, in my opinion, absolutely (is) a way to disenfranchise a person. They’ll move polls, close some down so the lines at others grow. And then they’ll disable the postal service, so we become afraid to use it. Suppression is all around us, but there are millions of people who live in areas with no public transport, no sidewalks and who don’t own cars.
“It might not be the government’s responsibility to get people to the polls but the lack of this crucial infrastructure hurts communities in other ways when it comes to looking for a job or trying to find healthy food. And that should be their responsibility”
Approximately, 9% of all U.S. households do not own a car, or about 10 million people, according to a 2018 U.S. Census Bureau report. That paired with a lack of public transportation in rural areas means that moving around can be extremely difficult. That, for example, disproportionately affects low-income seniors with disabilities living in the Southeast, according to a 2014 report by the American Public Transportation Authority. Mississippi and Alabama have the highest percentage of that particular population set, with majority Black counties dominating the list.
While Alabama does have a high percentage of car ownership, that doesn’t extend to people in a particular socioeconomic group.
Households with an annual income of less than $25,000 are almost nine times as likely to be a zero-vehicle household than households with incomes greater than $25,000, according to a Bureau of Transport Statistics report from 2017. And even those with a car, running that vehicle eat up more of their available income than people who earn more.
The same report identifies two Southeastern states where people spend a larger percentage of their income on gas than anywhere else in the country. In Wilcox County, Alabama, households spend 16% of their income on gas. In Holmes County, Mississippi, it’s 15.6%.
The high cost of gasoline relative to income is an issue that exists across the rural Southeast, according to the report.
And without the use of a vehicle, public transportation is typically the fall back approach for low-income people — if it’s available.
“We have very widespread transit accessibility shortfalls across the country,” said Joseph Kane, a senior research associate and fellow of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. “And so what I mean by that is, it’s not just for commute trips. That’s often how a lot of people think about the role of transit systems, whether it’s buses or subways in more urban areas, but it’s actually connectivity to all types of services and opportunities, including jobs and the ability to vote.”
However, despite the clear importance of this election among Brown and her fellow organizers, the coronavirus pandemic has made their jobs much trickier. Brown’s sorority has banned the Rolling to the Polls group from transporting people to the polls for fear of spreading the virus. However, it hasn’t stopped them partnering with other groups. This year, the River Region Voting Initiative will take on the responsibility of transport. That will include a fleet of drivers who will spend the day driving people back and forth from their homes to the ballot box.
Church groups will also mobilize private drivers and buses.
“We will have a lot of disabled and elderly people who want to vote and some of them might not be able to walk and need assistance,” said Rev. E. Baxter Morris of the First Baptist Church of Montgomery. “So we’ll be there with them if they need that. And we’ll just stay with them, for two or three hours if we have to.”
To ease pressure on their election day resources, Brown and Baxter have spent the last four years pushing absentee ballots and encouraging people to vote early, which is technically not allowed in Alabama but can be done via in-person absentee voting. To do that, the voter has to swear they are not going to be out of town, ill or working on election day. However, this year fears over COVID-19 were accepted as a reason to use absentee ballots.
However, in Alabama casting an absentee ballot hasn’t always been straightforward. Currently, absentee voters require a copy of a valid photo ID, an affidavit that must be notarized or witnessed by two people over the age 18, according to Alabama Secretary of State website. Brown said that most of her volunteers are now registered notarizers. These rules have been at the center of controversy given that not everyone has a photo ID and photocopying facilities are not always easy to come by in rural communities.
“I keep a photocopier in my car now,” said Perman Hardy, who has been transporting people to register and vote for over 25 years in rural Lowndes County. “There’s nowhere to photocopy so I try to make sure we have everything we need. Ain’t no one trying to make it easy.”
Hardy, now 62, who was once a sharecropper and had a successful career as a mental health nurse, gained some celebrity for her efforts in Alabama Democrat Doug Jones’ unlikely victory over Republican Roy Moore in late 2017. In Hardy’s Black Belt county, Jones won nearly 80 percent of the vote, with African Americans across the state giving him 96 percent of their vote.
Hardy said she has no plans to stop anytime soon.
“My father didn’t get a chance to go to school,” she said of why she continues to help people get out and vote. “He couldn’t read or write. My mother got a third-grade education. The only way to change those outcomes is to get out and vote. And our vote is loud.”
She added: “You have to look back over the years at the people who have given their lives for the vote. We cannot let those people down.”