On Democracy's Front Lines

Louisiana Voting Rights Defenders in Action

By Ella Wiley

Senior Communications Associate

“In my opinion, election protection is the most sacred project that the Legal Defense Fund’s voting team works on throughout the year. Out of all the extraordinary work we lead, there is nothing more important or impactful than directly helping our communities vote,” Jared Evans, Policy Counsel for the Legal Defense Fund (LDF), says in a recent interview. “When we are on the ground at polling sites engaging with voters and we get to help someone vote who otherwise wouldn’t have cast a ballot without our efforts, we are literally touching democracy.”

Since its creation, LDF’s Voting Rights Defender (VRD) project team, alongside many partners, has worked to serve as a powerful bulwark against the very active threat of voter suppression, particularly for Black voters — who are disproportionately targeted for disenfranchisement. This election season, we documented a day in the life of those working on the front lines in Louisiana to ensure that all eligible voters can cast their ballots and make their voices heard.


Preparing Voters, Protecting Rights

LDF has long worked in voting rights advocacy, protection, and empowerment. In addition to litigating voting rights cases, LDF launched its Prepared to Vote project in 2008, which supports voters by providing election education. The organization subsequently created its VRD project in 2020 to help shield against the recent and rising threats to democracy and Black political power.

Designed to help fill the countless gaps state and federal governments leave in navigating America’s often-complicated electoral system, VRD protects voting rights on the ground by working through and alongside a massive network of local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapters, grassroots organizations, student volunteers, and civil rights experts. VRD also reminds elected officials of their duties, in order to ensure accountability, and recommends solutions to common issues voters face during election season, including long lines, polling site closures, and more.

LDF Policy Counsel Jared Evans outside of a Louisiana polling place on Election Day on Nov. 8, 2022. (Photo by Keecee DeVenny, LDF)

When we are on the ground at polling sites engaging with voters and we get to help someone vote who otherwise wouldn't have cast a ballot without our efforts, we are literally touching democracy.”

Jared Evans

LDF Policy Counsel

On Election Day, VRD staff in various states field calls from volunteers reporting problems at polling sites, helping them navigate local election laws and identify what options voters affected by different issues have to ensure they can still cast their ballots. Staff also monitor for incidents that may inhibit voters’ access to the ballot box or put election workers at risk, including voter intimidation, poll worker harassment, and significant police presence at polling locations — and follow up with the correct officials to ensure problems are addressed quickly so voting can continue.

During the 2022 election season, LDF monitored polling sites in seven states: Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In addition to its own on-the-ground presence, LDF worked with 866-OUR-VOTE, a hotline staffed by trained election protection volunteers who answer questions about voter registration deadlines and absentee voting, as well as serve as go-to contacts for reporting problems at polling sites.

Setting the Stage for Success

Pre-Election Day Initiatives

In New Orleans, LDF was on the ground with the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, a local partner dedicated to building an integrated civic engagement strategy that amplifies the voices of those historically ignored. Power Coalition and LDF have a long legacy of defending voting rights in Louisiana, most recently partnering together to challenge the state’s new congressional map.

Before the election, LDF and Power Coalition successfully secured an additional early voting site in Caddo Parish after multi-hour lines plagued the one and only site in 2020. The additional site opened on Oct. 21, four days before early voting began in the state. The new site, with ample accessible parking and ramps, made a world of difference for Louisiana’s fourth-largest parish, which has more than 75,000 registered Black voters — more than Jefferson, Orleans, and East Baton Rouge Parishes combined.

“For our coalition and partnerships in Louisiana, this work is not seasonal — it’s year-round,” explains Victoria (Tori) Wenger, LDF Voting Rights Attorney and the leader of Louisiana’s team, in an interview with LDF. “Yet during all the chaos of rapid response on Election Day, we can still feel the weights lifted by the work we put in collectively those other 364 days of the year.”

LDF and Power Coalition staff outside of the Power Coalition office and Election Day command center.(Photo by Keecee DeVenny, LDF)

“For our coalition and partnerships in Louisiana, this work is not seasonal – it’s year-round. Yet during all the chaos of rapid response on Election Day, we can still feel the weights lifted by the work we put in collectively those other 364 days of the year.”

Victoria Wenger

LDF Voting Rights Attorney at LDF and Louisiana Team Leader

Behind the Scenes

At the Election Day Command Center

On Nov. 8 — midterm Election Day — the team began its day at 5:30 a.m. in order to prepare for polls to open at 6 a.m. Wenger started the day by confirming that volunteers had their poll site checklists, maps for assigned polling places, and resources to advise voters on the ground. All of this information and more is hosted on a one-stop-shop mobile app that VRD created. The team also set up their command center hub for the day at Power Coalition’s headquarters in New Orleans.

Wenger and Evans spent the morning fielding phone calls from volunteers on the ground, who noted issues with accessibility, voter rolls, and pushback from election officials about volunteer presence and nonpartisanship. They also advised Power Coalition staff and other volunteers who fielded calls from 866-OUR-VOTE to ensure that guidance being given to voters was up-to-date and in compliance with local laws.

It was during this morning scurry that a bomb threat was reported at a polling site at Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy in Kenner, an incorporated New Orleans suburb. The Kenner Police Department spent the next two hours investigating the threat, which thankfully proved to be a false alarm. In the meantime, voters assigned to that site were rerouted to another polling location at Audubon Elementary School, about two miles away.

This incident, regardless of intent, can result in voter suppression and intimidation. Indeed, for voters without a car or those who must overcome other obstacles to vote — such as securing a babysitter to care for children or taking time off of work — this threat may have inhibited their ability to cast their ballots, because they weren’t able to allocate more time to travel to and wait at an alternate polling location. Moreover, those who learned of the threat on social media or through word of mouth may not have received word that another polling location was available, and just assumed they had no alternative option for voting.
Armani Eady of Power Coalition for Equity and Justice at the Election Day command center monitoring and fielding calls from voters. (Photo by Keecee DeVenny, LDF)
LDF, Power Coalition, and Southern Poverty Law Center staff and volunteers at the Election Day command center. (By Keecee DeVenny, LDF)

Once the Kenner Police Department’s investigation concluded, Evans drove to Kenner Discovery Health Sciences Academy to ensure that election workers were posted there to inform voters of the new temporary polling site location. Sure enough, two workers seated in lawn chairs were waiting at the school entrance to intercept voters and notify them of the change. They had been there since 9:45 a.m. and would remain until polls closed to limit confusion among the community.

Evans’ next task was to assess the new location at Audubon Elementary School. Despite this obstacle, the line to vote seemed short. He stopped to speak with voters about their experiences and those who had been relocated reported no issues finding the new location.

In the afternoon, the hotline received calls from Black Ascension Parish voters suspecting voter suppression. They told volunteers that they registered to vote at the Parish’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) ahead of Election Day and received a registration confirmation, but reported that they were subsequently turned away at the polls because they were allegedly listed as unregistered. Some voters were ultimately able to cast traditional ballots, while others filled out provisional ballots. At the time of publication, LDF is following up with the DMV, voters, and partners involved to continue to investigate the incident.

Evaluating Data

Insights from Election Day Information Collection

As it the day neared its end, the team put together a summary of key issues that arose and organized poll site assessments forms. These forms, more than 200 of which were completed on Election Day during poll site checks across 18 parishes, include questions about polling site suitability, such as those assessing the availability of wheelchair-accessible ramps, parking, safety, signage, wait times, and more.

The information collected revealed that, unfortunately, many polling sites were not fully accessible. At least three locations did not appear to have accessible entrances — and accessible entrances at some polling sites were blocked or below required standards. Furthermore, there were virtually no signs identifying polling sites at at least five locations, and many more only had one sign or did not communicate poll location changes well through signage.

All issues with accessibility and signage were noted by VRD staff and escalated to relevant officials to help ensure that they are mitigated for all future elections, including the December 2022 general election. This escalation constitutes the start of VRD’s next year-long cycle, which Wenger described. The ongoing process helps ensure that the issues documented this election cycle will hopefully no longer plague voters in the future.

Once polls closed at 8 p.m., Power Coalition and LDF staff celebrated with pizza and listened contently as a second line band paraded through the headquarters. The sound of jazz filling the room was fitting and uplifting end to a long day.

With so much at stake this election season, defending voting rights is essential to protecting all rights — and preserving democracy. While this work may be relentless, progress is also unabating, as Wenger emphasizes. “Through the leadership of groups like Power Coalition for Equity and Justice and so many other incredible partners in Louisiana, we’ve been able to make progress against the odds. Incremental wins are motivating; they make you want to continually push to make voting rights more attainable [in order] to actualize the full potential of democracy in this state.”

Published: November 18, 2022

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