Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

In an election year that marks the 55th year anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Black community members and organizations are leading efforts to encourage civic engagement.

During the 2016 presidential election, New Haven was one of the bottom five cities in the state for voter turnout. Pew Research Center found that Black voter turnout in 2016 decreased nationwide by seven percentage points after a record high in 2012. Community members both at Yale and in New Haven told the News they hoped for greater turnout this election by focusing on Black voters in the community and across the country.

“I vote because my parents met and marched in the Civil Rights Movement, and I believe that this is a moment in our country when our democracy is at stake,” J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law James Forman Jr. LAW ’92 told the News. “My motivation to do this work to get people to try to vote [and] to get Black voters out in particular does come from a racial justice orientation, it comes from a memory that … my father couldn’t vote.”

Forman first organized a letter-writing event targeting voters in swing states at his home in late January, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Months later, Forman has organized multiple outdoor letter-writing events for community members, students, city officials and more –– gathering at a safe distance to write letters to voters across the country. Forman said that they have sent almost 7,000 letters so far to voters in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Forman, who is a Georgia native, said that he chose to focus on Southern states for his personal letters because of his “affinity for the South.” He also cited the fact that states like Georgia and North Carolina have a relatively high percentage of Black voters. Forman said that there was an “energy,” “enthusiasm” and “determination” in Black communities in New Haven, Connecticut and the nation to vote in the upcoming election.

One of the organizations present at one of Forman’s letter writing events was the Greater New Haven chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

“This year, in this presidential election and this election cycle, between the collaborations, partnerships and the number of volunteers we’ve had, I think we’ve touched more lives than we probably have ever,” New Haven NAACP President Dori Dumas said. “So I’m very proud of what we’ve done.”

Dumas said that the NAACP has registered roughly 150 new voters in the Elm City this election season –– mostly young voters or people who she said previously “never thought about” voting.

The NAACP began their work at the end of June by setting up registration tables at rallies and Juneteenth events. Now, Dumas said that volunteers are door knocking and canvassing New Haven neighborhoods to ensure that community members have voting action plans to hit the polls. She said that the NAACP is prepared to give car rides on Election Day, pass out water bottles at polling stations and encourage overall community participation on Nov. 3.

This election, Black New Haven organizers are also concerned about incarcerated individuals. 

In an email to the News, Connecticut Department of Corrections spokesperson Andrius Banevicius said that there are “approximately 3,193 unsentenced CT Department of Correction offenders who are eligible to cast absentee ballots” as of Nov. 2.

Of those 3,193 individuals eligible to vote, 583 are located at the New Haven Correctional Center.

Due to COVID-19 precautions, “external volunteers” weren’t allowed to participate in voting educational efforts like they have in past elections. Instead, according to Banevicius, a fact sheet was distributed to all incarcerated individuals and correctional counselors provided registration and absentee ballot applications to those interested.

“Any incoming or outgoing voting related mail has been deemed privileged correspondence and its delivery is being expedited,” Banevicius wrote.

Banevicius said that as of Nov. 2 there are 9,353 incarcerated individuals at the Connecticut Department of Corrections, with the highest number — 4,161 — identifying as Black.

Police budgets have been a focus during the election this year, especially among communities of color. Activists calling to defund and dismantle the police have marched in New Haven and across the country.

According to a recent poll conducted by the Connecticut chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, 63 percent of voters support divestment in New Haven’s police budget and reinvesting those funds into “public education and community-based violence prevention programs for youth.” Most of those polled, the ACLU reported, were voters of color.

From Sept. 18 to Oct. 5, the ACLU conducted 545 telephone and online interviews in three Connecticut cities — Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven. Of those polled in New Haven, 81 percent agreed that steps should be taken to reform the criminal justice system because communities across the country faced issues of police violence and racism.

“This [poll] sends a clear message to legislators that it is time to listen to Black and Latinx voters specifically,” Melvin Medina, the Connecticut ACLU’s public policy and advocacy director, told the News. “This isn’t just a poll of Black and Latinx voters, but it’s also a poll of Black and Latinx voters who either were harmed themselves or know someone who was harmed by the police.  When we’re drafting policies at the state legislature or at the municipal level, who elected officials should be listening to the most are the people that are most directly impacted.”

In the poll, 60 percent of New Haven voters answered yes to personally knowing anyone who has been harassed or harmed by the police. Medina also said that New Haveners were the only polled participants asked if they wanted to divest three-quarters of the police budget — as opposed to divesting half the budget — because of the strength of New Haven community members calling for 75 percent divestment over the summer.

New Haven polls are open on Nov. 3 from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Zaporah Price | zaporah.price@yale.edu