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Communion is offered during services Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020, at First Grace United Methodist Church in New Orleans.

Inevitably while watching evangelist revival meetings end with a teary flock of the newly converted head to the altar full of commitment and purpose, my late father-in-law, a Baptist minister, would wonder aloud how many would continue going to church after the emotion of the moment passed.

Similarly, churches, unions, fraternities and sororities, political parties, social clubs, the League of Women Voters, and many others hold red, white and blue rallies to rev up citizens to register to vote. But turning the newly enfranchised into long-term voters has always been something of a hurdle.

Only 75% of Louisiana’s 182,936 new registrants participated in the 2016 presidential election. That was better a percentage than the longstanding voters but still less than the initial enthusiasm suggested. Between now and the last presidential election, when 67.8% of registered voters participated, the number of Louisiana voters dropped by more than 60,000 before rebounding to a record level — 3,043,159 on Sept. 24 — going into the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Registration for the upcoming election is open until close of business Monday, for in-person sign-ups, Oct. 13 for online registrations.

“I think one of the bigger challenges, especially for election administrators, is that new voters tend to be less frequent voters,” David Becker, executive director at the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that analyzes elections administration, told National Public Radio on Sept. 13. “They tend to be less familiar with the process. That's a particular challenge this year when so many changes have occurred where voters are going to be having options that they might never have considered before, like voting by mail or voting early.”

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who puts on elections in this state, predicts Louisiana could see a record-breaking turnout on Nov. 3 — maybe 70% or more of the state’s 3 million voters. “I haven’t seen the electorate as engaged as they are today since Edwards-Duke, which was 72%,” Ardoin said, referring to the 1991 gubernatorial contest that pitted controversial Gov. Edwin Edwards against former Ku Klux Klan chieftain David Duke.

In last year’s race for governor between John Bel Edwards and Eddie Rispone, 51% of the registered voters participated. In the previous election with an incumbent governor on the ballot, Bobby Jindal in 2011, only 37% bothered.

In 2019, churches and civic groups, including Together Louisiana, organized volunteers to go into communities with historically low voter turnouts to mobilize participation among the registered voters who hadn’t been casting ballots regularly. Though officially bipartisan, Democratic incumbent John Bel Edwards, who had his own “get out the vote” effort, showed up at their rallies and was received enthusiastically. Rispone, his GOP opponent, stuck pretty much with Republican gatherings.

Edwards won by 40,000 votes out of 1.5 million cast.

Excited by how well the “Bridge the Gap” movement worked in 2019, a number of activists started brainstorming how to continue the effort and make it more part of a community’s daily life, said Khalida Lloyd, a lawyer and minister of congregational engagement at First Grace United Methodist Church on Canal Street in New Orleans.

“We said, ‘What if we’re doing this all wrong? It’s not about a ramping up for two to three months for a candidate. It needs to be sustainable and impactful,” Lloyd said. “What if we can connect people with a block captain in their own neighborhood, neighbors motivating neighbors? Someone who can go to their neighbors and say ‘I know the issues. The election coming. This is how to get connected. This is how to participate.’”

Together Louisiana, a coalition of community and faith-based groups, adopted the idea and tapped Lloyd to lead the effort.

Together Louisiana has recruited about 1,700 block captains, mostly in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Shreveport. But they also have fair number of volunteers in Lafayette, Monroe and Lake Providence along with other communities across the state.

The whole group of block captains gathered by video conference Thursday night to meet each other and trade ideas.

It’s not necessarily a new idea. In fact, it’s pretty much the same strategy employed by the Old Choctaws, the politically conservative ring that ran New Orleans from Reconstruction through World War II. Except Together Louisiana will be using smartphones and datapoints to organize rather than patronage jobs and cash payouts.

“We definitely want people to register to vote,” Lloyd said. “But we have a group of people not going out to vote. When they don’t participate, their concerns, their issues aren’t addressed. That’s not the way democracy is supposed to work.”


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.