Spreading The Vote By Meeting People Where They Are

“We have to do things differently,” Candice Battiste tells me. We were discussing the ways in which voting rights advocates in Louisiana and across the nation typically program voter registration drives.

If you’ve ever been to a public event during campaign season, you’ve probably encountered someone seated behind a fold-out table decorated with a neatly arranged display of clipboards and brochures; usually, the organization’s name is draped on a banner hanging from the center of the table or advertised on the t-shirts worn by volunteers.

Every now and then, particularly during campaign season in Louisiana, you may drive by a cheap tent set up in the neutral ground near a major intersection. The tents are sometimes staffed by volunteers but usually campaign workers, paid $50 to $100 a day to sit in the elements- rain or shine, sweltering or freezing- to distribute push cards promoting their candidate and to ensure those who are not yet registered to vote fill out a simple form that guarantees they will be by Election Day.

Candice Battiste has a new plan to increase voter registration in Louisiana. It’s not only her new plan; it’s her new job.

Currently, the system isn’t working the way it is supposed to work; today, voter registration is primarily the responsibility of campaigns and their supporters. In some states, it’s illegal for people working for a particular campaign to engage in voter registration activities.  Ideally, for example, that’s a task assigned to every employee who ever encounters you whenever you show up to renew your license or change your address at your local Department of Motor Vehicles.  Ideally, in a state like Louisiana where ID is required to vote, it should be easy, convenient, and free of charge for any eligible voter to obtain that ID. 

Seven years ago, during the Jindal administration, former Sec. of State Tom Schedler, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, and the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services were sued by a coalition led by New Orleans attorney Ronald Wilson, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the organization Project Vote for violating Section 7 of the National Voting  Rights Act.  The case was pretty straightforward. Louisiana agencies had failed to do one of its easiest tasks imaginable: Affirmatively provide people voter registration information.

For whatever reason, Sec. Schedler, who recently resigned in disgrace, decided the case was worth spending a small fortune to fight. He was knocked out at every level. Ultimately, in 2013, a federal judge issued a damning ruling against Schedler and his department, which is now led by his then-First Assistant Kyle Ardoin. Quoting from Project Vote (emphasis added):

The court ruled that the Secretary of State, the Department of Children and Family Services, and the Department of Health and Hospitals had been systematically violating the NVRA (National Voting Rights Act).

Among other things, the court found that the public agencies were violating the NVRA by using application forms that did not offer voter registration or did not contain the language required by the NVRA; requiring clients to affirmatively request voter registration (opt-in) before distributing registration applications; failing to check voter registration applications and failing follow-up with clients if applications were incomplete; and permitting employees to tell clients that they could register to vote through the Secretary of State’s website, rather than actually distributing voter registration applications.

With regard to the Secretary of State, the Court ruled that the Secretary provided inconsistent and inaccurate trainings and failed to ensure that public assistance offices were complying with their responsibilities under the NVRA. The court also reaffirmed the plaintiffs’ standing, and entered a permanent injunction requiring the defendants to comply with the NVRA.

Although she may claim Shreveport, Candice Battiste, 33, is originally from Haughton, Louisiana in Bossier Parish, a booming exurb about twenty minutes east and a place that is now perhaps most well-known for being the hometown of Dak Prescott, the quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. She earned her undergraduate degree from LSU and then decided to pursue a legal career. After wrapping up law school at Southern, Candice, unlike most of her peers, returned home and began working as a staff attorney at Legal Services of North Louisiana, a nonprofit legal aid organization that provides services for low-income and elderly residents who live within its 26-parish service area. Her experience and her education motivated her to become more involved in public policy and advocacy.

Candice Battiste (Source: Spread the Vote)

I first met Candice a few months ago during a discussion I led in New Orleans for the state’s chapter of the New Leaders Council. She was one of only a handful of applicants selected as a fellow for its institute, a series of intensive training sessions for young, motivated, and highly-qualified Louisianians interested in becoming a leader in public service or in a nonprofit organization.

Later this year, she served, briefly, as a volunteer for Adrian Perkins’s campaign for Shreveport mayor, which she credits as her very first experience in politics. Perkins, who is only one month older than Battiste, recently won in a runoff election against incumbent Mayor Ollie Tyler. He is set to take office on December 29th, but by the time the campaign season rolled into full gear, Candice had already moved on to a new and arguably much more consequential job; she was hired as a regional field director for the statewide campaign known as “Yes on Two,” the proposed state constitutional amendment to end the practice of non-unanimous jury convictions.

The amendment passed in a landslide, and Candice quickly found her next job. She was recently hired as the state director for Spread the Vote, a national nonprofit organization that helps people who cannot afford to get an ID to pay for that ID.

Spread the Vote is a 501(c)(3) that was launched in 2016 but kicked into high gear during this year’s midterms. Currently, the organization, which is the brainchild of Kat Calvin, has only five state chapters; Louisiana will be its sixth, and West Virginia will be its seventh.

“We don’t need to be in every single state,” Calvin explains to me. “We need to be in the 22 states that have restrictions (like Louisiana’s).”

Spread the Vote does not rely on a penny from the government; it’s entirely funded through grants and donations. In Louisiana next year, Battiste will oversee a budget of approximately $150,000 and plans on having satellite locations in the state’s five major regions, largely relying on a network of state advisory board members to ensure they can maximize their resources.

The organization is, by its very nature, completely non-partisan. “This is not about compulsory voting. We’re not telling people who to vote for,” Calvin says. “We’re not requiring they even vote at all.”

What they are doing, instead, is simply helping people with the financial assistance they need to purchase an ID. Calvin says the costs are typically between $50 to $80, though they are often higher for the homeless, “easily over $100,” and those who rely on shelters as a result of civil fines imposed for vagrancy and loitering. Spread the Vote helps cover those costs as well.

Although the organization is focused primarily on voter registration, Calvin understands that for those who lack an ID, voting isn’t their top concern. “People aren’t interested in voting if their basic needs aren’t taken care of,” she says, noting that a lack of ID prevents people from gaining employment or housing or even getting a meal to eat at a shelter.

Kat Calvin (Source: Twitter)

Calvin, 35, currently lives in Los Angeles, but because her father was in the Army, she grew up all over the country, spending several years in Arizona and in Washington State, where she graduated high school.

After earning  Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts, where she majored in theater with a minor in religious studies, Calvin ultimately decided to pursue a law degree from the University of Michigan, one of the nation’s top five law schools. 

But in the two years between college and law school, Calvin moved to a place she had never been before: Opelousas, Louisiana. She taught first graders at Crestwell Elementary School, arriving in Louisiana in the immediate aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. 

Calvin’s decision to expand Spread the Vote to Louisiana is practical; she recognizes the importance of the 2019 elections. But she also still feels “a personal connection” with the people of Louisiana. “I really admire the community activism that occurs in Louisiana,” Calvin tells me.  

Both Calvin and Battiste understand the work cut out for them. More than 20% of eligible African American men are not registered to vote in Louisiana, which is why Battiste believes in doing things differently.

“We have to meet people where they are,” Battiste says. To that end, in addition to traveling across the state and cultivating a network of volunteers, Battiste intends on spending a lot of time in barbershops, instead of underneath a tent near major intersections or behind a fold-out table at conferences.

Spread the Vote isn’t going to wait until campaign season to kick things off in Louisiana. “Our motto is 365 + 1,” Calvin says. “We want to help get people IDs every day of the year.”

The math doesn’t add up for a reason; by working year-round, they hope to provide people a day they never had before: Election Day.