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Mississippi Free Press editor and CEO Donna Ladd explains how the Trusted Elections focus on precinct locations and moves came about. After a friend from Rankin County described intimidating precinct moves there, she writes, “I really started thinking about the kinds of voter suppression that could be hiding inside Mississippi’s counties with basically no sunshine or media scrutiny.” File Photo by Allie Jordan

MFP Trusted Elections Project Again Interrogates Mississippi Voting-Precinct Systems

Several years ago, back when I ran the Jackson Free Press and the Mississippi Free Press was still a someday/maybe dream, a friend told me about the problem of voting locations moving in his family’s area of Rankin County without warning. He described his local precinct suddenly closing, forcing his family to go into a white area where they, as Black voters, weren’t happy to visit because of a high concentration of Aryan Nation gang members in the vicinity.

He believed it was a sneaky attempt at voter intimidation.

That was the first time I really started thinking about the kinds of voter suppression that could be hiding inside Mississippi’s counties with basically no sunshine or media scrutiny. But I didn’t have the resources then to put a team on it. After Kimberly Griffin and I started the statewide Mississippi Free Press in 2020, though, I started talking to our-then-only-reporter Ashton Pittman about the precinct project and applying for grants to help us do this work statewide.

By fall 2020, we had an American Press Institute grant to help our Mississippi Trusted Elections team do what turned out to be inordinate and tedious work to fact-check the state’s list of voting precincts, addresses, and various errors and changes.

Precinct System Was and Is a Mess

Our hunch was right: The precinct system was and is a mess, and the lack of good, consistent information has made voting harder and more frustrating in Mississippi probably through our entire existence as a state.

Are shifting voting locations and outdated intentional suppression? Or is it about poor systems and oversight and general half-assed “good enough” approaches that too often make excellence in Mississippi so difficult? I suspect it’s a combination of both. Because, you know, why wouldn’t every damn election official burn the midnight oil to fact-check and fix the problems before every Election Day if they wanted everyone to vote?

I’ll leave folks to answer that question for yourselves. But what we know is that, in 2020, poll changes in Madison County caused massive problems on Election Day, which Ashton and his husband Liam documented extensively then, attracting national attention to the problem.

Ashton and Liam (who is a whiz with data-gathering) aren’t letting this project go, nor am I. Now, for the third time—November 2020, primaries 2022 and now for the general election—they have again turned over every stone they can to see what shape the precinct list is in and what has changed to give Mississippians a fighting chance to know before Tuesday. The Black Voters Fund stepped up to fund research this year in this non-partisan hunt for good voting location information.

And the problems aren’t just in Black voting precincts as you’ll see.

A bevy of state and national civil-rights organizations noticed our Trusted Elections focus on poll locations and recently sent a letter to Secretary of State Michael Watson, citing the Pittmans’ journalism, to demand reforms to the system. (They had sent an earlier one, too, also citing our work.)

Interrogating Systems, Purposeful or Neglected

In many ways, this ongoing project is at the heart of how we think at the Mississippi Free Press. Yes, we want to expose the bad guys who do bad things, and we do, but we are also here to interrogate the systems that create today’s challenges in Mississippi. That may well be the systemic racism that built Mississippi—from trying to redirect public funds to private schools (that are still overwhelmingly white) to trying to disenfranchise those convicted of a select list of crimes.

Or it may be the poor daily systems that allow the wrong voting locations to be published year after year without an airtight system for fact-checking them in advance of an election. We need to solve all of this, Mississippi.

Our same approach applies to covering the state’s TANF/welfare scandal. We will continue to concisely outline and timeline what the evidence clearly shows (or doesn’t show to date) about the TANF players—avoiding wishful reporting—but we will also tell you more about the roots of the problem that far predated the current story. (Watch for a piece next week on that.) We sure won’t cherry-pick what actors we name by names based on party, political or familial allegiance, or whom we’ve hobnobbed with at cocktail parties.

The Mississippi Free Press timeline on the Mississippi welfare scandal, Brett Favre and the University of Southern Mississippi volleyball stadium contextualizes dozens of texts between the former quarterback, indicted nonprofit leader Nancy New, former Gov. Phil Bryant and others.

We promise to continually do the less-sexy work of looking more closely at the weak links in the systems here that, for instance, allowed theft of federal funds to go unnoticed for too long. Our goal is to listen deeply and report solutions far beyond headlines or appearances on national news shows (although Ashton did a superb job of contextualizing the TANF story properly on the Chris Hayes Show recently, I must say).

We win boatloads of awards and get continual national attention to our work, and we’re grateful for the often-elusive national notice of excellence in Mississippi.

But make no mistake: We are here for the long haul to help Mississippi fix the various systems that keep us on the bottom in so many ways and hurt so many of our people. We appreciate your support in helping us make that happen and hope you will give to our year-end NewsMatch campaign to help grow our amazing reporting team even more in 2023.

Right now, both NewsMatch and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation are together tripling your gifts up to $1,000. Please give if you can. And thank you to former Gov. Ray Mabus for matching our first $5,000 since NewsMatch launched Tuesday.

Finally, many people initially find us through social media (as I’m sure many of you did). In a time of Twitter uncertainty, please encourage your friends to subscribe to our free newsletters or to enable browser notifications by clicking the icon at mississippifreepress.org, so they never miss a story.

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