TUPELO – North Mississippi is ground zero for an organization that aims to increase voter registration, turnout and engagement.

Mississippi Votes, a recently-incorporated nonprofit organization, has in recent weeks coordinated volunteer canvassing efforts in Lafayette and Lee counties.

Under the leadership of Elle Beene, a former Itawamba County resident, these canvassing efforts aim to register new voters and collect survey data about voting behavior.

“There’s a lack of primary research on why Mississippians aren’t voting,” Beene said.

The organization ultimately aims to mount canvasing efforts in 22 counties across the state, including seven in the 1st Congressional District.

According to estimates produced by Mississippi Votes, between 20 and 30 percent of eligible voters are not registered in each of these 22 counties.

In Lee County, Beene said estimates indicate that a little over 24 percent of eligible voters are not registered to cast a ballot.

In Lafayette County, the percentage is a bit higher at 29 percent.

That means more than 10,000 citizens in each county are eligible to participate in the electoral process but have never cast a ballot or registered to do so.

Volunteer teams trained by Mississippi Votes are thus in the process of going door-to-door within those counties in areas where data indicates there are high rates of unregistered voters.

“We are giving grassroots volunteers the tools they need to go out and register their neighborhoods,” Beene said.

Next up, Beene hopes to expand the organization’s efforts into Marshall and DeSoto counties. She hopes that by the end of year, the organization will have volunteer teams in all seven of the 1st Congressional District counties it plans to target.

The organization formally incorporated earlier in March but preliminary research efforts began late last summer.

Since March, the organization’s canvassing efforts have registered 150 new voters, Beene said.

Counting a pilot program last year, the organization’s data indicates that canvassing teams have registered a total 1,309 new voters.

In addition to survey and registration efforts, the organization also plans to partner with school district to educate high school students about the electoral process. Efforts in Lafayette County began in May and efforts in Lee County began in June.

Canvassing remains ongoing in Lafayette and Lee counties on each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Much of the organization’s leadership has present or past ties to the Democratic Party or liberal advocacy efforts, but Beene said Mississippi Votes has no political agenda.

“We are completely not partisan,” Beene said. “We will do no advocacy. We will not try to influence policy in any way. Our primary activity is voter engagement and voter education.”

caleb.bedillion@journalinc.com Twitter: @CalebBedillion

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