Owen Tucker-Smith

On Saturday afternoon, the Kiyama Movement and New Haven City Clerk’s Office held a voter drive commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and honoring victims of police brutality in the U.S. 

Founded 15 years ago, the Kiyama Movement serves as a self-improvement organization for Black men. According to their website, the group’s principles range from economic accountability to respect for womanhood –– values that they hope to cultivate in members. 

According to Kiyama Movement founder Michael Jefferson, the group is currently focusing on a special initiative called Black Men Vote Too, in which they aim to increase turnout in the Greater New Haven area by 15 to 20 percent. 

“Black males are least likely across all demographics to get involved in electoral politics,” Jefferson said. “Connecticut is one of the most liberal states in the country when it comes to voting, and our challenge now is to undo the apathy that seems to envelop African American communities.”

Saturday’s voter drive hosted several fraternities and other local organizations involved in the effort to engage voters. One was Omega Psi Phi, whose local chapter is mandated by their national fraternity organization to develop voter registration programs.

Alexander Jones — the Basileus, or the leader, of the Epsilon Iota chapter of the historically African American organization — said they will be fighting to inform voters up until November.

“This summer up until election day, we’re outside getting people registered to vote,” Jones said. “We have forms, and we’ve had Zoom calls on why it’s important to vote. Everyone has a choice, and everyone has a duty. Not a lot of people know how to vote, so we want to be out here helping people get their absentee ballots.”

Attendees at the drive could fill out paperwork that would enable them to vote in the November election. Those hoping to vote could fill out two separate forms — one for Connecticut voter registration, and one to request an absentee ballot. Those at the drive could complete the forms and leave them in a Voter Ballot Box, which would be emptied at the end of the day and brought up to the City Clerk’s office to be mailed, according to City Clerk Michael Smart. 

Once voters receive their absentee ballots, the voter box will still be available for ballot processing, so postage isn’t needed at any step of the way, Smart added. 

The Kiyama Movement’s event marks several milestones this year: the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, which granted African American males the right to vote; the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the same right; and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, which “swept away those obstacles that prevented Black people from voting in the South,” like literacy tests and poll taxes, Jefferson said. But even with all these historical progress points, Jeffersons said, voter suppression looms large, and Black voters often feel disconnected from the political process. 

“There’s a lot of disillusionment among Black people when it comes to electoral politics, because we’ve been betrayed so often by politicians of all views and ethnicities and races,” Jefferson told the News. “That betrayal stings a whole lot, so people are reluctant to place their trust in a system that really has failed.” 

Jefferson said the Kiyama Movement is especially trying to reach 18- to 35-year-old voters to show them how voting can impact their own lives and communities, with an eye not only towards federal elections but also towards local and state ones.

He noted that issues like police brutality, which have recently played a significant role in conversations surrounding racial injustice, are directly tied to these local elections.

“In the City of New Haven, the mayor appoints the Chief of Police and the Board of Police Commissioners,” Jefferson said. “That’s significant, and if you want to have an impact on how your community is policed, that’s something you need to be aware of.” 

According to the Pew Research Center, just over 20 percent of Americans voted by mail in the 2016 presidential election. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those numbers are set to be much higher this year. 

While ballots won’t be available until Oct. 2, thousands of residents have already requested mail-in ballots, Smart told the News. 

“We’re getting an unprecedented number of absentee ballot applications,” Smart said. “We’re way over 9,000, and we’re just starting. We expect there to be a much higher absentee ballot turnout compared to the physical polling places.”

The deadline to register to vote in Connecticut for the November election is Oct. 27.

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu