Just three years ago, Mississippi had an election law on its books from an 1890 constitutional convention that was designed to uphold “white supremacy” in the state. The law created a system for electing statewide officials that was similar to the Electoral College — and that drastically reduced the political power of Black voters.
Voters overturned the Jim Crow-era law in 2020. This summer, a federal court threw out another law, also from 1890, that had permanently stripped voting rights from people convicted of a range of felonies.
Now Mississippi is holding its first election for governor since those laws fell, the contest is improbably competitive in this deep-red state, and Black voters are poised to play a critical role.
Black leaders and civil rights groups in Mississippi see the Nov. 7 election as a chance for a more level playing field and an opportunity for Black voters to exercise their sway: Roughly 40 percent of voters are Black, a greater share than in any other state.
“This election is going to be one that is historical,” said Charles V. Taylor Jr., the executive director of the Mississippi state conference of the N.A.A.C.P. “It’d be the first time we don’t have to deal with this Jim Crow-era Electoral College when it comes to the gubernatorial race. And also, we’re at a point in our state where people are fed up and frustrated with what’s currently happening.”
Democrats are trying to harness that energy behind Brandon Presley, the party’s nominee for governor. Mr. Presley, who is white, is seeking to ride his brand of moderate politics and his pledges to expand Medicaid to an underdog victory over Gov. Tate Reeves, an unpopular Republican incumbent who has been trailed by a welfare scandal.
Black Mississippians lean heavily Democratic: Ninety-four percent voted for Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2020, according to exit polls. Any path to victory for a Democrat relies on increasing Black turnout and winning over some crossover white voters.
Mr. Presley, a member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission and a second cousin of Elvis Presley, has made outreach to Black voters central to his campaign, seeking to win them over on Medicaid expansion, addressing a rural hospital shortage and providing funding for historically Black colleges.
On a recent October weekend, Mr. Presley navigated the tents and barbecue smokers at the homecoming tailgate for Alcorn State University, one of six historically Black colleges in the state. As he darted from tent to tent, wearing a purple-and-gold polo to support the home team, Mr. Presley introduced himself to unwitting voters and took selfies with his backers, many who flagged him down amid the din of music and aroma of smoking ribs.
“Let’s go Brandon!” came a tongue-in-cheek call from one purple-and-gold tent packed with chairs.
LaTronda Gayten, a 48-year-old Alcorn State alumna, ran over to flag Mr. Presley down. The candidate eagerly obliged, high-fiving and hugging supporters, proclaiming, “Come Nov. 7, we’re going to beat Tate Reeves!”
Ms. Gayten and her friends made sure to get a picture before Mr. Presley ran off to the next tent. “He’s looking out for the people of Mississippi,” she said. “I’m from a rural area and Wilkinson County, and I don’t want our local hospitals to close down.”
Many of the state’s rural areas, however, are heavily white, and any Democrat seeking statewide office must cut into Republican margins there. Mr. Presley routinely notes in his stump speech that he is “building a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, independents, folks who might not ever agree on politics.”
The race’s limited polling shows Mr. Presley within striking distance but running consistently behind Mr. Reeves. Mr. Presley outpaced the governor in the most recent fund-raising period by $7.9 million to $5.1 million, but Mr. Reeves enters the final stretch with $2.4 million more in cash on hand.
Elliott Husbands, the governor’s campaign manager, said in a statement that Mr. Reeves “has been meeting with voters in every single community across the state, including many Black voters, to work to earn their support.” Mr. Reeves’s campaign shared a social media post with pictures of Mr. Reeves meeting with Black leaders, but declined to offer further details.
As Mr. Presley tries to bridge Mississippi’s stark racial gap, he has not shied away from that history.
“Black Mississippi and white Mississippi have been purposely, strategically and with intent, divided over racial lines,” Mr. Presley told a lunchtime crowd at a soul-food joint in Jackson. “Intentionally divided. For two things: money and power, money and power, money and power.”
He added that Mr. Reeves and his allies were “hoping that Black voters do not come vote in November. That’s what they’re banking on.”
Mr. Taylor and the local N.A.A.C.P. have begun a new program to reach out to Black voters.
Every day, canvassers fan out across a predominantly Black neighborhood of low-propensity voters, seeking to have extended conversations about the issues that are important to them and what would make them more likely to vote.
Calling themselves the Front Porch Focus Group, the canvassers — run by Working America, a labor organization, in collaboration with the national and local N.A.A.C.P. — have knocked on nearly 5,000 doors. Voters’ top priorities are clear: economic opportunities, affordable housing and health care.
Yet the canvassers’ resulting study found that Black voters “did not identify voting as a mechanism to solve those issues.”
“Among the people with whom we spoke, 60 percent shared a version of, ‘Voting does not make a difference,’” the study says. “One voter told us they ‘would rather work that hour and make 18 more dollars than spend an hour being miserable to vote.’ Jahcari, a 34-year-old man in Jackson, said, ‘In the state of Mississippi, I feel like Black people will never be on top, so we don’t really have that much we can do when it comes to voting.’”
Mr. Taylor is hoping to change such attitudes, and the new voting landscape is the beginning.
Under the old election law, candidates for statewide office had to win both the popular vote and a majority of State House districts, with maps that were often drawn to pack Black voters together and limit their voting power. The state’s law barring those convicted of certain felonies from voting also disproportionately affected Black voters, disenfranchising one in every six Black adults, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. (The case is currently tied up on appeal, with no future date set by a federal court.)
Black Mississippians, Mr. Taylor said, are some of the voters who have been least “invested in”; the state is so deeply red and so gerrymandered that national Democrats rarely spend money there.
That is why the local N.A.A.C.P. has increased its budget for this election cycle to nearly $1 million, compared with roughly $500,000 in 2019. Mr. Taylor is also overseeing a vast program of traditional door-knocking, direct mail, targeted digital advertising and ads on Black radio. He is focusing in particular on races connected to criminal justice, like those for district attorney.
Mr. Presley’s viability, as well as recent victories in Georgia Senate races and friendly rulings by the Supreme Court, could be paving a path for Black voters to build a stronger voice in the South.
“I’m so greatly appreciative to all of the folks that did incredible work in Georgia,” Mr. Taylor said in an interview in his local N.A.A.C.P. office. “If you want to win in the South, it takes time.” Next door, original windows from the civil rights era were still scarred by bullet holes. “We have to look at winning over the span of decades, not just one election.”
Mr. Presley’s campaign believes that one election may be now. It has made what it calls a multimillion-dollar investment in outreach to Black voters, including an effort to deputize volunteers and supporters to reach out to their personal contacts.
Still, he must win over skeptics.
As Mr. Presley meandered through the Alcorn tailgate, a D.J. offered him his mic for a quick word.
“We’ve got to beat Tate Reeves, and I need you with us, and I need you to go vote,” Mr. Presley thundered. “God bless you.”
But the D.J., who declined to give his name, wasn’t letting Mr. Presley off easy.
“We need you to be here next year when you win, and that you will continue to come, and guess what, you’re going to support our H.B.C.U.s,” the D.J. said. “Let me hear you say it: You will support all H.B.C.U.s.”
He handed the mic back to Mr. Presley, who borrowed a line from his stump speech.
“All H.B.C.U.s, and we’re going to get the $250 million back to Alcorn State University that was taken from them,” Mr. Presley said, referring to a letter the Biden administration sent Mr. Reeves last month saying that Mississippi had underfunded the institution by that amount over 30 years.
The D.J. gave him an overhand clap before playing the next song, and Mr. Presley walked to the next tent.