Inconvenient truths about voting in Louisiana

November 14, 2023 9:10 am
A red "Vote" sign greets voters as they trickle into a downtown Baton Rouge precinct Saturday, Oct. 13, 2023, for the statewide primary election.

Voters trickle into a downtown Baton Rouge precinct Saturday, Oct. 13, 2023, for the statewide primary election. (Jonathan Peterson for Louisiana Illuminator)

On Oct. 14, Jeff Landry sailed to victory in an election with the lowest voter turnout in over a decade. In the days that followed, certain media and out-of-state political commentators attempted to paint their own picture of what led to Landry’s victory. Many were quick to blame Black voters for low turnout, which is not only simplistic and insulting, but also ignores what’s really happening here in Louisiana.

That’s because no one wants to talk about what the primary voter turnout really says about Louisiana. It’s time we have a very different conversation about what it takes to engage and mobilize Louisiana voters of all backgrounds — especially Black, brown and poor voters.

It is an inconvenient truth that sustained poverty has power. It drives enormous voter apathy. We need to face the truth of what it means when our communities are indifferent to politics, especially among Black and brown Louisianans who have had to fight and claw for every single measure of progress, even when they’re just trying to get by.

Another inconvenient truth is that politics does impact our lives. Even when it seems like a sideshow, we can’t let that obscure how decisions made in Baton Rouge can improve life for all of us or not just for the wealthy few.

We’ve made major progress in recent years. Medicaid expansion opened up access to regular, preventative and primary care for more than 400,000 people. We added more early voting days in presidential elections, abolished the three-minute rule to make voting time longer and expanded voting rights for people with disabilities.

Through the incredible work of local organizations such as Voices of the Experienced, our prison population has fallen 24 percent, driven by a decline in people convicted of nonviolent offenses. We’ve invested more than $100 million in supporting victims and preventing re-offending. The community supervision population is nearly 40 percent smaller since reforms made caseloads more manageable for officers.

That all happened because Louisianans chose leaders who put people first, injecting balance into state government. Now, with Gov.-elect Landry waiting in the wings, we stand to lose that balance.

Landry has promised tough on crime policies, which have never worked in Louisiana or anywhere else, despite Louisiana being one of the most incarcerated places in the world.

He doesn’t plan to tackle climate change or corporate greed, even as worsening disasters threaten our communities and insurance costs skyrocket. Insurance costs have become a deciding factor on whether folks can actually live in our state. Instead of real solutions, we are once again talking about strategies that pay the insurance industry and leave the most vulnerable without coverage.

Landry has been in lock-step with far right leaders who hail from places like Florida. Polarizing rhetoric by Florida politicians has driven down tourism, a major economic driver both here and there that we can’t stand to lose.

Without balance in our State Capitol including checks on Landry’s power, all recent progress is under threat. And the reality is that Louisiana can’t afford to be Florida.

Once again we find ourselves in a race to the bottom of every good list and the top of every bad list. We have the second highest rates of overall poverty and child poverty, just short of Mississippi. More than 250,000 children are struggling, including at least 140,000 in deep poverty. We’re fourth lowest in income and fourth highest in income inequality.

A recent study showed that poverty is the fourth leading cause of death in America. It’s no wonder apathy abounds — Louisianans are busy just trying to survive.

The final inconvenient truth is that turning the tide of voter apathy won’t happen for this November. Progressives need to be real about what is working and what isn’t amid the truth of the realities of poverty in Louisiana. A transactional approach that fails to see what we care about or what motivates us is going to fail. We know this because the Power Coalition for Electoral Justice, the organization I lead, and our partners are talking to voters year round, building relationships and listening to their concerns.

But in the meantime, we’re still hitting the streets to educate and mobilize people to vote this year. We’re showing how important it is to avoid a far-right supermajority in the statehouse to protect progress.

Because at the end of the day, we want to build a stronger future. Louisianans care about each other, our communities and our state. That’s one truth we can all agree on. Our leadership should reflect that truth.

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Ashley Shelton
Ashley Shelton

Ashley Shelton is the founder and CEO of the Power Coalition for Electoral Justice, a C4 civic engagement table focused on building collective power to create lasting change through an integrated civic engagement strategy. Its mission is to amplify the voices of historically marginalized communities who have been ignored and organize them into a unified movement to build pathways to power for themselves.